For U.S. service members who have fought alongside the Kurds, President Donald Trump's decision to approve repositioning U.S. forces in Syria ahead of Turkey's invasion is a naked betrayal of valued allies.
“I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” one unnamed special operator told Fox News Jennifer Griffin.
In a Twitter thread that went viral, Griffin wrote the soldier told her the Kurds were continuing to support the United States by guarding tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners even though Turkey had nullified an arrangement under which U.S. and Turkish troops were conducting joint patrols in northeastern Syria to allow the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, to withdraw.
“The Kurds are sticking by us,” the soldier told Griffin. “No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us.”
Given how heavily the United States has relied on Kurdish groups to rout ISIS, the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria is as sensitive as a raw nerve for top Pentagon leaders.
When the Turks made clear their incursion was inevitable, the Pentagon moved about 50 special operators out of the zone to make sure they were not caught up in the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a Pentagon news briefing on Friday.
“We have not abandoned the Kurds, let me be clear about that,” Esper said. “We have not abandoned them. No one greenlighted this operation by Turkey – just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels telling the Turks not to commence this operation.”
“But Lord knows, they have opposed this relationship between the United States and the YPG since its infancy in 2015,” Esper continued. “The Turks have opposed it all along the way, and so we should not be surprised that they finally acted this way.”
However, one unanswered question is whether the Turks would have still invaded Kurdish-held Syria if the U.S. troops on the Turkish border had not been withdrawn.
“The U.S. special operators on the border were a deterrent to Turkish action by requiring Turkey to consider whether it was willing to open fire on a NATO ally in violation of the security mechanism that Turkey had already agreed to, in which the YPG had already made concessions,” said Jennifer Cafarella, research director with The Institute for the Study of War.
Esper is technically correct that the United States has not abandoned its Kurdish allies because it has not withdrawn all of its troops from Syria and it is continuing to provide support to the YPG, Cafarella told Task & Purpose.
“However, what we did was perhaps worse, which was to retreat to the sidelines and allow Turkey – somewhat passively on our part – to violate the agreement that we had been attempting to implement,” she said.
The White House first announced on Oct. 6 that U.S. troops along the Syrian/Turkish border would be withdrawn ahead of Turkey's military operation. Trump later sought to downplay the U.S. military's long-standing tactical relationship with Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria.
“They didn't help us in the Second World War,” Trump said on Wednesday. “They didn't help us with Normandy, as an example.”
Despite the president's aspersions, the Kurds remain beloved by many U.S. troops who went to war with them.
Several special operators told Foreign Policy reporter Lara Seligman that the Kurds are both disciplined, competent fighters and fiercely loyal to the United States, even after Trump initially announced in December that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.
The following month, four Americans were killed by a suicide bomber in Manbij, Syria.
“Immediately, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] was there,” one unnamed officer told Foreign Policy. “They were helping us in the street even though all this had happened.”
It is worth noting that even though the White House announcement about the Turkish invasion came as a surprise, Trump has made clear that he wants to eventually withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.
Special Forces soldiers learn that they have to plan for the end of their campaign because they cannot advise and assist local forces indefinitely, said retired Army Col. David Maxwell, a former Green Beret.
“You cannot fall in love with your 'G's' (guerrilla or indigenous forces) because at some point you have to leave,” said Maxwell, now a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C. “That said, it requires a plan for transition and not a snap decision based on emotion rather than interests and values as appeared to have happened in regard to Syria.”
The situation with the Kurds is just the latest example of the United States leaving its allies in the lurch, Maxwell said.
In the Philippines, Burma, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has found valuable partners with indigenous forces, who were either abandoned or not treated well in the end,
“So we have a long history of abandoning friends and partners,” Maxwell said. “Yet they keep coming back and are very willing to work with U.S. Special Forces.”
Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 14 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.