Kurdish fighters led the assault on ISIS strongholds across Syria alongside U.S. special operations troops, brutally attacking entrenched ISIS fighters at a devastating cost.
President Donald Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of a so-called "safe zone" in northeastern Syria leaves these forces and their compatriots at the mercy of Turkish forces and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made no secret of his desire to launch an invasion there. Military leaders say Trump's abandonment of an ally in the fight against ISIS is a grave mistake.
"This policy abandonment threatens to undo five years' worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies," retired Gen. Joseph Votel, the former head of U.S. Central Command who oversaw the campaign against ISIS, wrote in The Atlantic on Tuesday.
The U.S. is abandoning the Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight against Turkish forces, who threaten their territory from the north. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists, an extension of the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey, which has fought back — sometimes violently — against state-sanctioned oppression there.
As Votel outlines in The Atlantic, the Kurdish forces were the only suitable regional allies in the fight against ISIS — the only group sufficiently trained and strategically savvy enough to fight alongside the U.S. and defeat ISIS's territorial caliphate, which it did in a series of stunning victories.
Kurdish forces liberated "tens of thousands of square miles and millions of people from the grip of ISIS," as Votel says. In return, they sustained 11,000 casualties and lost their American buffer against the threat of Turkish invasion.
'The value of an American handshake is depreciating.'
When Trump originally declared that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria in late 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned, saying the president deserved a defense secretary who shared his views.
In his recent book Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead, Mattis wrote of his decision to resign: "When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution" — the allies, in this case, reportedly being the Kurds.
"The consequences of such unreliability from the Oval will reverberate well beyond Syria," Brett McGurk, the former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, tweeted Monday in response to Trump's abrupt decision.
"The value of an American handshake is depreciating," continued McGurk, who resigned from his post last December over Trump's announcement that he would pull all US troops from Syria.
In abandoning Kurdish forces to the will of Turkey, the US also decreases regional stability and risks gains against ISIS. As a Pentagon Inspector General report from August found, ISIS is resurgent in Iraq and Syria; now, with Kurdish attention focused on fighting Turkey at the border, approximately 11,000 ISIS militants in makeshift prisons guarded by SDF fighters are that much more likely to break out of captivity and wreak havoc, Votel writes.
But as McGurk wrote, "Trump today said we could 'crush ISIS again' if it regenerated. With who? What allies would sign up? Who would fight on his assurances?"
Read more from Business Insider:
- A brutal dictator, warring US partners, and a former Al Qaeda branch: Here's who controls Syria now
- Trump's Syria retreat is a massive break from post-9/11 Republicanism
- Trump's rapid Syria withdrawal is making life near the border with Turkey even more dangerous
- 200 Iraqis were wounded in protests over the removal of a hero of the ISIS fight
- U.S. jets smashed an island ISIS was using 'like a hotel' and troops found rockets and bombs stashed in caves