President Trump green-lighted the Turkish cross-border assault against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday 6 October 2019—but the influence operation to prep him for that moment began many months ago.
Events in the Middle East have unfolded rapidly since Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of areas in northeastern Syria ahead of the coming Turkish invasion that began 9 October with a combined force of armored, mechanized and commando brigades, assorted special forces teams and over 6,000 Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters from various Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. Close to a week later, hundreds of Kurdish civilians are dead, thousands more are uprooted and fleeing, and Turkey’s forces continue advancing ever deeper into Kurdish areas, even as Syrian troops head north to confront them. Turkish forces have even launched multiple artillery rounds in the direction of a U.S. Special Operations post near the embattled town of Kobane. In short, utter chaos has ensued.
The Center for Security Policy (CSP) published “Ally No More: Erdogan’s New Turkish Caliphate and the Rising Jihadist Threat to the West” in 2018 to sound a warning about where Turkey was headed under Erdogan and AKP leadership. Unfortunately, the Turkish regime’s charm offensive apparently carried more weight with the Trump administration. Despite Erdogan’s claimed intention merely to establish safe zones where thousands of Syrian refugees currently supported inside Turkey would be resettled, in fact his real intent was always a population transfer of those pro-Muslim Brotherhood Sunnis into border areas ethnically cleansed of Kurds. Turkey’s broader ambitions in the region also have long been clear: he and senior Turkish officials have been talking about jihad against the Kurds, Cyprus, Greece, the Balkans and more for at least the last couple of years now. Erdogan’s speeches are replete with references to re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire. In early January 2018, Ismail Kahraman, the Speaker of Turkey’s National Assembly, declared that “without jihad, there can be no progress…” In February 2018, Erdogan spoke openly about his jihadist intent to reclaim lands Turkey once dominated in the days of the Ottoman Empire:
We say at every opportunity we have that Syria, Iraq and other places in the geography in our hearts are no different from our own homeland. We are struggling so that a foreign flag will not be waved anywhere where adhan is recited.
Then, speaking in early September 2019, Erdogan went an ominous step further, declaring that it was “unacceptable” that Turkey can’t have nuclear weapons—and hinted that Turkey may already be working on obtaining a nuclear capability.
There was a time during the 20th century when Turkey stood athwart some of the most strategic territory in the Middle East, side by side with U.S. and NATO allies, to prevent communist Soviet expansion. Those days are long gone. Erdogan rules Turkey with an increasingly tyrannical fist and openly supports HAMAS, which operates an espionage cell that targets Israel from inside Turkey. Today’s Turkey is dominated by the Muslim-Brotherhood-aligned Justice and Development Party (AKP), which collaborates closely—on U.S. soil—with the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood in open pursuit of jihadist objectives. The hub of Turkey’s operations in the U.S. is the Turkish-government-owned 16-acre Diyanet Center of America in Lanham, MD, where AKP members meet regularly with the top leadership of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), and their many front groups. Turkey and its National Intelligence Service (MIT) permitted jihadist fighters from around the world to use its territory freely to transit along with equipment and weapons across the border to join the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS – since 2014 ‘Islamic State’, IS) on Syrian battlefields. In other words, Turkey actively enabled the rise of the Islamic State in the first place and helped its forces carry on their savage jihad for years.
Writing in January 2019 to this very point, Michael Rubin argued that it is time to re-assess who the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and its affiliates in the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and SDF (Syrian Defense Forces) really are today. Hardly Jeffersonian democrats, they clearly also are not the Marxist ideologues of 35 years ago that targeted civilians with terror attacks, he says. Rubin also points out that “the only reason the U.S. allied with the Kurds in the first place was because, under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, they proved more willing to confront the Islamic State than Turkey”.
Now, as a direct result of the U.S. retreat, hundreds of IS fighters already have escaped at least one detention center in Ain Issa, rapidly raising the black flag of jihad nearby because they know the Americans are gone and the Turks will pose no problems for them. There is concern that thousands more Islamic State fighters, families, and other supporters soon will be free to re-ignite their jihad for a caliphate. Desperate Kurds have turned to the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Asad for protection against the rampaging Turks, who have opened a whole new phase in the 8-year-old Syrian civil war.
This is precisely the development the Trump administration said it was trying to prevent and why the President’s original December 2018 desire to pull out all U.S. troops from the area was modified somewhat to allow some forces to remain to forestall just this eventuality as well as to act as a blocking force against Iranian expansion. With the September 2019 departure of John Bolton from the National Security Center, however, that kind of hard-nosed realism has diminished, and Trump lost no time in inviting Erdogan to the White House.
Speaking on a Sunday morning talk show 13 October, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper only added to the dismay erstwhile U.S. partners are feeling across the region when he declared that “The protection and safety of our service members comes first.” His and Trump’s emotional response to the battlefield loss of American service members unfortunately illuminates for our enemies the inchoate lack of a strategic national security policy for the Middle East. Seeing U.S. troops caught between Turkey advancing from the north and Iranians from the south, the U.S. administration chose to withdraw, abruptly leaving our Kurdish fighting partners without warning and exposed to forces far superior to their own intent upon their annihilation.
As Ilan Berman wrote in a 14 October 2019 article, among the most serious consequences of the American decision will be a loss of trust in the U.S. as a reliable partner. Friends and enemies alike are watching the interaction between Erdogan and Trump and making their decisions accordingly. Following the perceived lack of U.S. resolve to confront the Iranian regime after repeated attacks against commercial shipping, Saudi oil fields, and even a U.S. drone, the impression is that Trump is neither a dependable ally nor an adversary to be feared. This sets a dangerous scenario whose price will come in the blood and treasure needed to reverse such impressions.
The dispatch of about 1,800 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to help the Kingdom defend mutual interests against Iran may be juxtaposed with the retreat from Syrian battlefields, but to what ultimate end? Iranian forces and proxies are now driving to capture valuable oil fields in eastern Syria even as Qods Force commander MG Qassem Suleimani directs Shi’ite proxies in Iraq to destabilize the Baghdad government and drive Americans out. An emboldened Turkey had practically surrounded Cyprus with some 20 vessels as of 10 October 2019, attempting to bully Nicosia into letting it drill in Cypriot waters, while the Trump administration reportedly is preparing to announce some sanctions against Turkey in coming days.
At best, the American decision to allow the Turkish advance may be seen as a tactical move in preparation for more battles to come.
This article was originally published by the Center for Security Policy.
The views expressed in CCNS member articles are not necessarily the views or positions of the entire CCNS. They are the views of the authors, who are members of the CCNS.