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Old 12-26-2018, 08:22 AM
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Question Could U.S. Withdrawal from Syria Lead to War Between Russia and Turkey?

Could U.S. Withdrawal from Syria Lead to War Between Russia and Turkey?
By: Alexander Bick - December 26, 2018

Analysis of President Donald Trump’s December 19 announcement that U.S. military forces would withdraw from Syria within 30 days has rightly focused on the potential adverse consequences for the unfinished campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), and on identifying the geopolitical winners and losers. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was already in a strong position, is finally free of any meaningful threat from Washington. His principal backers, Russia and Iran, have gained prestige and regional influence. Meanwhile, the closest U.S. partners in Syria – the Kurds, but also Britain and France – have been left holding the bag.

But this is hardly the final round in Syria’s civil war, and U.S. policymakers and others would be well-served to think through what will happen when the strategic map resets. Of course, the United States was never the dominant actor in Syria, and its influence routinely has been overstated. Nevertheless, over the past seven years, big Syria policy decisions – good, bad, and ugly – have profoundly impacted the course of the war. If implemented, Trump’s latest decision will be no different. Russia and Turkey, the two most important external actors remaining in Syria, both stand to gain from the U.S. withdrawal, but both also have reason to be anxious over precisely how the resulting vacuum will be filled. How are Russia and Turkey likely to react, and what might be the consequences, positive or negative?

For several months, the war in Syria has effectively been frozen. After recapturing pockets of insurgent control in the Damascus suburbs and along the Jordanian border earlier this year, Assad’s military campaign has ground to a halt. Instead of the Assad victory some predicted, a series of ad hoc, internationally-brokered agreements have solidified lines of control and prevented further advances by any side. The result has been a de facto partition of the country into three clearly delineated zones of influence in the west, northwest, and east – backed, respectively, by Russia and Iran (west), Turkey (northwest), and the United States (east). While this arrangement has dramatically diminished the bloodshed, it has not satisfied the strategic objectives of any of the major parties and therefore remains highly unstable.

Two weeks ago, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan forced the issue, stating that Turkey was ready to invade the U.S.-backed zone to remove from its border Kurdish military forces aligned with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Ankara has been fighting for more than thirty years. After playing an instrumental role in the battle of Kobani in October 2014, these forces emerged as the key U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey views their growing military strength and political legitimacy as an acute threat to its national security – a point Erdogan has made repeatedly to both President Obama and President Trump. Erdogan’s promise that a Turkish invasion would help to “eradicate whatever’s left of ISIS” is a rouse: Turkey’s objective is to weaken the Kurds, not ISIS, and in any case the remaining pocket of ISIS control is more than a hundred miles from the Turkish border, all through Kurdish-controlled territory. Nevertheless, Trump appears to have taken this promise seriously.

So long as U.S. forces remain in Syria, Erdogan’s military plans are a very risky proposition. But a U.S. withdrawal upsets the fragile equilibrium, opening the door for Turkey and leaving the Kurds exposed. The Kurds cannot maintain control over the territory they currently hold absent international security guarantees: Kurdish lines are too long, their control over traditionally Arab areas too tenuous, and they have no air force to counter attacks from either Turkey or the Syrian government. France has publicly expressed continued support, but it is unclear how a relatively small French contingent can operate without the larger framework of U.S. logistics and intelligence, or whether a French presence would be sufficient to deter an attack. If and when U.S. forces leave, Kurdish-controlled territory is likely to contract sharply.

The main question is who will claim the spoils: Turkey or the Syrian government (with Russian and Iranian help)? There are two basic scenarios. In one, Turkey launches an attack on Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates and seeks to expand its own sphere of influence on the Syrian side of the border. If successful, this would neutralize the Kurdish threat and create another buffer zone in which Syrian refugees might ultimately be able to return, analogous to the Euphrates Shield area in northwest Syria. In the second scenario, the Kurds cut a deal with Damascus that returns eastern Syria to government control, in return for some degree of Kurdish autonomy and protection from Turkey. Of course, these scenarios are not mutually exclusive: Turkey could proceed with a preliminary operation against Manbij, on the Kurds’ northwestern flank, at the same time that the Syrian military and its allies attempt to retake Tabqa Dam or oil and gas infrastructure in Deir ez Zor province, further south.

In any scenario, the scramble for territory is likely to sharply increase tensions between Russia and Turkey. While Turkish threats work to Damascus’ advantage, since they increase its leverage in negotiations with the Kurds, neither the Syrian government nor Russia want to see a fresh Turkish invasion. This would undermine Assad’s core objective of reclaiming “every inch” of Syrian territory, create a new safe haven for Turkish-backed Syrian forces that continue to oppose Assad’s rule, and potentially deny Damascus access to energy and agricultural resources that it desperately needs to fund reconstruction. Russia is therefore likely to seek to accelerate talks between the Syrian government and the Kurds, while offering Turkey assurances that its interests will be protected and, crucially, pressing Turkey not to press further into eastern Syria. Russia has cards to play here: in addition to Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas, Russia serves as the guarantor of the October agreement in Idlib that forestalled a Syrian government offensive which could send more than a million new refugees into southern Turkey. In Idlib, Russian and Turkish interests aligned; in the east they do not.

At the same time, however, Erdogan appears to have a green light from Washington, and in any case there are sound strategic reasons for Turkey to proceed, even in the face of protests from Moscow. The departure of U.S. military forces from eastern Syria is not an unambiguously positive development for Ankara. Turkey has lost the ability to play the United States and Russia off one another, and should the Syrian government and the Kurds reach an accommodation, there is every reason to suspect they will soon find common cause against Turkey, as they have many times in the past. This is likely to begin with Assad’s support for a Kurdish offensive to retake Afrin, which Turkey seized in March, and could develop into broader cooperation to harass and ultimately expel Turkey from all of northern Syria. There is no question that expanding Turkish operations into the east carries significant risks, which is probably one of the main reasons Erdogan has delayed his plans. But sitting tight while Turkey’s adversaries in Syria unite is not terribly appealing, either. By proceeding, Erdogan might be able to deal the Kurds a decisive blow, while keeping attention focused on the east (rather than the northwest) and giving himself more chips to trade in when he needs them.

Whatever happens, with the United States out of Syria it is hard to see how Russia and Turkey do not rapidly find themselves at loggerheads – either because Russia is unable to protect Turkey’s interests in Syria, or because a Turkish invasion undermines Russia’s efforts to bring the war to a successful conclusion. This would be welcome in so far as it might bring Turkey back into closer alignment with the United States, but an unintended confrontation between the two countries inside Syria or a major clash between Russian and Turkish proxies could easily spiral out of control. In the most extreme case, this could result in Turkey invoking collective self-defense under article 5 of the NATO treaty, which would bring the United States back to Syria in a very different, and far more costly, role. But even absent that, a fresh escalation of the war would be a disaster – for Syria, the region, and international efforts to defeat ISIS.

The challenge of preventing an unwanted escalation is of course made infinitely harder when consequential decisions are made on the fly, without adequate consultation or planning. A responsible withdrawal from Syria requires a diplomatic strategy to manage what comes next.


Personal note: Currently a lot of things "could" result? But - if I were Russia - I sure as hell wouldn't want to fight the Turks! This could be really bad news for them - but if push comes to shove they will have to learn a very hard lesson. The Turks are not quitters and will result in a fight to the death - they are some very tough men and have strong wills against anyone wanting to take their country.


O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Old 12-26-2018, 08:29 AM
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Question Will War in Syria Shift From Geography to Ideology?

Will War in Syria Shift From Geography to Ideology?
By Tawfik Hamid - Wednesday, 26 December 2018 10:51 AM

Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition to defeat Islamic State (ISIS), has resigned in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. This Past Saturday, Fox News confirmed the information.

U.S. Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis resigned earlier this week also — partly in response to the president’s decision.

In order to respond reasonably in this type of dynamic situation, it's crucial to continue collecting informed views from multiple vantage points.

Supporters of President Trump’s surprise decision have valid points.

So do his opponents.

Many supporters of the decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria point to our war in Afghanistan as sufficient reason in and of itself.

America has spent more than 15 years, more than 1 trillion dollars, and more than 2,000 American lives fighting in Afghanistan. This, with no discernible signs of victory over radical Islam there. Though we have massively outspent and outgunned the Taliban, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford admits that the Taliban "are not losing" and that there is no "military solution" to ending the war in Afghanistan.

On this subject I must point out — based on my own experience as a former Islamic radical— that current U.S. military rules of engagement are counterproductive; they undermine our ability to achieve complete victory over the Taliban (or any other radical jihadist movements).

Thus, conforming our rules of engagement to reality is the first step to winning this war.

The president recently declared, "We have defeated ISIS."

This would be technically accurate if he were referring to the physical presence of ISIS as an Islamic State with full control over a certain geographical area.

Indeed, thanks to his aggressive approach against them since becoming commander in chief, ISIS no longer wields absolute control over any geographical area at all.

Yet, many ISIS jihadists have escaped to continue the fight in other places.

We certainly have not yet defeated the barbaric ideology they espouse.

This a fact that we cannot ignore.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks resulted from the development of this hateful ideology in the Mideast, the cultivation and training of its radical adherents in Afghanistan, the plotting and planning of terrorist attacks in Hamburg, Germany, and the execution of these evil plans on American soil — in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

This reveals that the problem cannot be defeated in one single place on a map.

The problem is the ideology — wherever it may rear its ugly head.

Our security here in the U.S. depends on our ability to defeat the ideology. This will require proper international relations and collaboration with particular key players — globally.

Many of those opposing the president’s new Syria policy are not unreasonably worried about the security gap that will likely be created by the withdrawal of our troops.

Our withdrawal will certainly be seen as a sign of weakness by Islamic radicals.

And this will encourage and empower them.

They will see it as righteous vindication, and it will fortify their willingness and dedication to attacking us, our allies — and our interests.

Others are understandably worried that the withdrawal will regionally expand the power of the Russians, the Iranians, Hizb Allah, and Assad.

In addition, the Kurds will feel betrayed if we leave them without arranging protection against the inevitable negative backlash by ISIS and other forces in the region.

In fact, Kurdish fighters immediately discussed releasing nearly 3,200 ISIS prisoners after the announcement of the withdrawal.

The president’s decision can be even more fruitful if it's part of a strategic vision which includes pre-emptive solutions and tactics to deal with all possible consequences of the withdrawal.

In other words, the withdrawal will work best as a tactical step rather than a strategic goal.

It is imperative that we launch effective common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVE), psychological operations and ideological warfare immediately before, during, and after the pulling out of troops.

By doing so, we could prevent the Islamic radicals from seeing our move as a sign of weakness. This would send them a message in the form of powerful psychological deterrents to prevent them from attempting to attack us again.

It would also diminish the number of individuals joining their groups.

Using a properly crafted psychological warfare strategy with effective CVE tactics could turn the physical withdrawal of troops into a genuine and lasting victory over ISIS by defeating them ideologically.

Remaining indefinitely in Syria or withdrawing our troops without synchronizing our withdrawal with effective CVE efforts could be equally perilous.

It is well to remember that our withdrawal from Iraq was quickly followed by the creation of ISIS. This was followed by a rapid increase in radicalism levels, partially because that withdrawal was not coupled with, nor followed by, effective psychological and ideological operations.

In such a complex situation, it's fair to say that perhaps President Trump is withdrawing our troops from Syria because he understands that the war against radical Islam is not geographic. It is ideological.

Finally, President Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops from Syria may also allow more money to be directed to develop better technology for the U.S. military, so that the U.S. continues to be technologically ahead of other nations — especially Russia and China

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Old 12-26-2018, 08:41 AM
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Arrow What Trump’s Syria decision means on the front lines

What Trump’s Syria decision means on the front lines
By: DAVID IGNATIUS | Washington Post Writers Group | Published: December 26, 2018

The voice of Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces militia, is tight and controlled as he describes President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country and leave America’s allies to their fate.

“This was something we never expected,” he said somberly in a telephone interview Saturday night from his command headquarters in northeast Syria. “Honestly, until now, everything the Americans told us, they fulfilled, and the same thing for us. … So we were surprised and confused. We were not ready for a decision like this.”

Mazloum explained the dangers of a terrorist resurgence after Trump’s sudden decision. Islamic State communications last week showed new hope they can restore their caliphate, which was on the way to destruction, he said. What’s more, Mazloum has been holding more than 2,200 ISIS prisoners, including 700 foreign fighters. Without help from the United States and other coalition members, those deadly fighters may eventually escape.

What’s agonizing is that Mazloum has been fighting alongside U.S. special operations forces that represent the steadfastness of this country’s military, and now he is experiencing a quite different American face. “To be frank, the first thing I thought about when I heard this decision was America’s reputation,” Mazloum said. “Because after this decision, what are people going to say about America? All the credibility and trust that was built, we have lost.”

Mazloum is a tough, unsentimental commander, in his early 50s, with tight, curly hair and a pitted face. When I’ve met him on past visits to Syria, he conveyed a quality of calm and deliberative judgment that’s rare among militia leaders in that part of the world. The Kurdish fighters have an almost cult-like commitment to follow his orders and hold their ground, no matter what.

This willingness to fight and die under U.S. guidance has made the Kurdish-led forces unique allies. With American air support, SDF fighters destroyed ISIS’ capital of Raqqa and all its major strongholds. The Kurds and their Syrian allies paid a severe price: They have suffered about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded since 2014. Over that same period, the United States lost three soldiers in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.

Mazloum said Trump’s decision was a shock because it came just a week after a personal visit from Ambassador James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy to Syria. Jeffrey promised that U.S. forces wouldn’t withdraw until they had achieved the “enduring defeat” of ISIS, the expulsion of Iranian troops from Syria and a political settlement that stabilized the country. Jeffrey’s promises “created a high level of morale,” Mazloum explained, “but unfortunately, after a short period, the opposite happened.”

The Kurdish people have been abandoned by America before, when they became politically expendable. I asked Mazloum if he had ever thought, in working with his U.S. advisers, that the same thing might happen again. “If you want the truth, no,” he said. Now, after Trump’s announcement, he’s scrambling to open channels with Russia and the Syrian regime, “to fill this vacuum left by America.”

What astonished me most during our hourlong conversation was that Mazloum’s forces continue waging their bloody campaign against the remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria, even though his fighters want to return home to Kurdish areas and protect their families. Mazloum said his forces had suffered at least 27 killed in action since Trump’s abrupt decision, and many more wounded, as a revitalized terrorist adversary sent a wave of more than 10 suicide attacks against Mazloum’s front lines.

“Right now, we are fighting for ourselves, for our existence,” Mazloum said. “Because all our fighters know that if they don’t defend themselves [ISIS] will come back and be stronger, murdering and beheading their families.” He said the threat was especially severe for the Arab members of the SDF coalition who fear reprisals from both Sunni terrorists and Iranian-backed Shiite forces.

Mazloum believes that Trump made a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened to invade Kurdish areas and destroy what he claims is Kurdish terrorism. Mazloum said he advised his commanders that this agreement was made by U.S. politicians, not soldiers. “This is something immoral, leaving your ally in the battle alone,” he said, something American soldiers would never do by choice.

I asked Mazloum what he would be doing the following morning. He said he planned to go to the front lines, to bolster the morale of his 10,000 troops still battling the Islamic State. In this holiday season, when we think about keeping faith, that’s the kind of ally we are betraying.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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