Message of Syria withdrawal: You can trust America to let you down

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 21, 2018

Left to their fate. Kurdish demonstrators gather to protest near the border wall separating Turkey from Syria in the western Syrian countryside of Ras al-Ain, December 20. (AFP)

Those who now express outrage, shock and complete surprise at Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria evidently missed the BBC’s “Hard Talk programme of December 16.

Three days before Trump’s tweeted announcement on Syria, the BBC television and radio programme featured Gulnur Aybet, senior foreign policy adviser to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Aybet, formerly a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University, told “Hard Talk” presenter Stephen Sackur clearly: “We are very determined we will not have a terror corridor on our border… The Americans can cooperate with us if they wish to.”

To Sackur’s question “and if they don’t?” Aybet responded with a little smile and the supremely confident answer: “Well, I think they will, eventually.”

She was right. As she predicted, the Americans have agreed to “cooperate” with Turkey. Trump will meekly and hurriedly pull out of northern Syria and abandon the Kurdish allies who bravely fought and died alongside US troops in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Now, the prospects for the Kurds are truly terrible. Turkish state news agency Anadolu has reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar’s bloodthirsty promise that the Kurdish militia “will be buried in the ditches they dug.” The Trump administration has said nothing about the horrors about to be visited on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an offshoot of the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF have been America’s chief agent, shield and support in northern Syria for the past two years. That Turkey considers the SDF one and the same as the outlawed Turkish Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is neither here nor there. That Turkey wants to there’s no other word for it but “exterminate” the Kurds should be a cause for concern.

Bob Corker, outgoing chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged with dismay that America’s adversaries will use this as evidence that it is an unreliable partner. “It’s obviously a political decision… a colossal mistake,” Corker added. “But I’m sad for the lives that are going to be lost very quickly and I’m sad for all the people who sacrificed in the way they have in something that was being won.”

The senator went on to refer to the suspected transactional nature of Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds. What he almost certainly meant was the December 18 notification to Congress by the Trump administration. The day before America’s Syria withdrawal was announced and barely 72 hours after Trump had a telephone chat with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the US administration said it had approved the sale of Patriot missile defence batteries to Turkey. This had long been a contentious issue between Washington and Ankara.

The coincidental timing led observers such as Jonathan Alterman, director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Programme, to suspect the worst. “It would be disturbing if a strategic gesture (of withdrawal from Syria) was made for commercial reasons,” Alterman said.

Corker called it “transactional.” Alterman said it may have been “commercial.” Aybet, Erdogan’s adviser, predicted it was inevitable the Americans would “cooperate… eventually.”

It adds up to a sell-out, or as Bloomberg editorialised, a message to allies large and small: You can trust America to let you down.

Click here to watch the BBC’s Hard Talk programme of December 16, featuring Gulnur Aybet. At 22.37, Aybet says Turkey is “very determined” to move against the Kurds. Shortly after, she predicts the Americans will “cooperate” with Turkey “eventually”.