WSJ's expose of how America was humiliated by Trump's chaotic retreat in Syria

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WSJ's expose of how America was humiliated by Trump's chaotic retreat in Syria

Post by jserraglio » Sat Oct 19, 2019 3:01 am


President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops upended Middle East policy and empowered Washington’s adversaries

America’s humiliating exit from the war in Vietnam was marked by chaotic images of people struggling to board the last helicopters leaving the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The U.S. didn’t want to leave Syria in similar fashion.
That is what the Trump administration’s special envoy for the fight against Islamic State, James Jeffrey, told the top Kurdish military commander, a longtime U.S. partner against the militants, in one of their last conversations before Turkey attacked.
Days later, as Turkish-backed forces advanced into Syria, the U.S. military began a haphazard retreat from the Syria border that left thousands of Kurdish allies alone and outgunned.
As the fighting intensified, the U.S. faced the possibility of another Saigon moment. Dozens of Kurdish women and children fled their homes and sought sanctuary at the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition fight against Islamic State, an abandoned cement factory about 30 miles from the Turkey-Syria border. Soldiers turned them away.
Three days later, as Turkish-backed forces advanced on the same base, U.S. Apache helicopters and F-15 jets flew past low and fast over the fighters in a show of force to protect Americans hunkered down behind the base walls.
Kurdish fighters set fire to their part of base, seeking to leave behind little of value. Within hours, American forces withdrew. Two U.S. jet fighters returned to destroy an ammunition depot, tents and latrines, an attempt to reduce the facility’s military usefulness to Turkish-backed forces.
The decision by President Trump to leave Syria set in motion events that upended U.S. policy in the Middle East, cast doubt on America’s reliability as an ally and allowed Washington’s adversaries to fill the void: The Assad regime strengthens its hold. Russia expands its influence. And Iran sees greater freedom to ferry weapons to allies in the region, posing new threats to neighboring Israel.
Following a successful five-year campaign by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces against Islamic State, which reduced the militant threat to Western capitals, Turkey launched an attack on Syrian Kurds, forcing the besieged group to seek help from Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
With the U.S. in retreat, Syrian and Russian forces are angling for control of American military bases that until last week were used to carry out counterterrorism missions against Islamic State.
A Russian reporter in a New York Yankees cap posted a video of an abandoned U.S. base in Manbij, Syria, taken over by Russian and Syrian fighters. Dining hall refrigerators were still filled with cans of Coke and Pepsi. Kitchen shelves were loaded with bread, bagels and Krispy Kreme doughnut boxes.
More than 300,000 Syrians have already fled the fighting. Cellphone videos posted online last weekend appeared to show Turkish-backed fighters executing two prisoners on a roadside.
“We are sheep for the slaughter,” said Abu Khalil, a Kurdish farmer who fled the Syrian city of Ras al-Ain with 14 family members into Iraq. More than 1.5 million Kurds live in northeastern Syria.
Aid groups have suspended operations and evacuated international workers. Syrians who worked with the groups have shredded documents that might link them to Americans, fearing the Assad regime would use any evidence to imprison, torture or kill them.
In Washington, Democratic and Republican lawmakers excoriated Mr. Trump for ceding U.S. influence in Syria to Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. The bipartisan outcry comes as Mr. Trump faces an intensifying impeachment investigation in the House.
Mr. Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey and threatened to destroy its economy if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t stop his military offensive. Turkey agreed to halt its incursion on Thursday after the U.S. accepted most of Mr. Erdogan’s demands, cementing Ankara’s gains.
Violence continued Friday, and Kurdish fighters gave no indication that they were prepared to disarm or withdraw from contested areas, as Turkey and the U.S. expect.
Mr. Trump’s Oct. 6 withdrawal announcement followed repeated promises to extricate the U.S. from what he called endless wars, as well as a past call to leave Syria nearly a year ago.
Current and former administration officials said the decision this month reflected a fractured national security process run by advisers divided between Kurd supporters and those who leaned toward Turkey. One State Department official said the president failed to rein in advisers, even those with goals at odds with Mr. Trump’s directives.
Some Pentagon officials said they shared responsibility for the chaos in Syria because they didn’t design a more robust drawdown plan in the months since Mr. Trump first called for a withdraw in December. Troops had only hours to decide what military equipment to take, destroy or leave behind.
Mr. Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria came so abruptly that even his staunch supporters said it marked America as an unreliable ally.
“Iran is going to move into Syria, ISIS is going to re-emerge [and] it is going to be on President Trump’s watch,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “If he continues down this way of thinking, then Syria becomes his Iraq.”
As the first Turkish forces moved into Syria on Oct. 9, Mr. Trump sent a three-paragraph letter to Mr. Erdogan, making a last-ditch appeal for the Turkish leader to make a deal with Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led, Syrian Democratic Forces.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Mr. Trump wrote. “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy! Don’t be a fool!”
Mr. Erdogan said Friday the letter lacked respect and wasn’t in line with diplomatic courtesy. His response, aides said, was to launch the offensive into Syria.
“We will not forget,” Mr. Erdogan said of the letter. “When the time comes, we will take the necessary steps.”
Advancing divisions
U.S. defense officials have long said a withdrawal from Syria required a political solution, a job for diplomats, not soldiers. Military and diplomatic officials warned Mr. Trump that removing troops from northeastern Syria before a deal among Syria’s warring sides and Turkey could allow Islamic State to regroup,
Over the summer, the American troop level held steady at 1,000. Turkey and the U.S. tried to hammer out an agreement for the Kurdish militia known as the YPG to relinquish territory on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.
The U.S. persuaded the YPG to abandon a few of its border positions, but that didn’t appease Mr. Erdogan. During an Oct. 6 call with Mr. Trump, the Turkish president said the U.S. was too slow in setting up a buffer zone along the border and that Turkey wouldn’t tolerate the situation any longer.
Mr. Erdogan assured Mr. Trump he would secure the region and ensure that Islamic State prisoners don’t escape, U.S. officials said.
When the two presidents spoke that day, Mr. Trump was surrounded by a revamped national security team. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been on the job for a week. Defense Secretary Mark Esper had been in place for two months.
After the call, Mr. Trump spoke with his top national security officials. They spoke in favor of keeping some U.S. forces in Syria.
But Mr. Trump was fed up, officials briefed on the meetings said, insisting he was done fighting overseas wars. He ordered about 50 U.S. troops to abandon two border outposts where Turkey planned to attack.
The following day, Oct. 7, Mr. Trump hinted at a full troop withdrawal on Twitter, saying it was time to “get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars.”
“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood,’” Mr. Trump wrote.
The seeds for Mr. Trump’s decision were planted in May, 2017, when he agreed to arm Kurdish fighters and hasten the fight against Islamic State. Turkey, which considers the Kurdish fighters a terrorist threat, strongly opposed any U.S. plan to arm its adversaries.
At the time, U.S. officials gave Mr. Trump two options: Arm the Kurds and let them lead the fight, or send at least 10,000 U.S. forces. The American troops would work with Turkey and its Syrian allies to seize Raqqa, Islamic State’s self-declared capital.
“I’m not sending any more forces into Syria,” Mr. Trump said, according to a person familiar with the discussion. “Arm the Kurds, take Raqqa, get ISIS out of there, and then get the hell out of Syria. It’s sand and blood and death.”
The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces seized Raqqa in five months. It took them another 17 months to crush the last Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
For Mr. Trump, that was supposed to end American involvement. Yet he had selected advisers who opposed a complete withdrawal from Syria—including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
As Mr. Trump chafed at advisers who urged him to keep troops in the Middle East, his national security team said publicly and privately that the U.S. would remain in Syria until Iranian forces were pushed out and Islamic State was eliminated.
Done deal
Mr. Trump first decided to leave Syria nearly a year ago, following a December phone call with Mr. Erdogan. The president surprised his aides, saying he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. forces from Syria and handing Turkey the job of containing Islamic State.
The announcement triggered a bipartisan uproar in Congress. Lawmakers warned it would be a mistake to abandon the Kurdish YPG fighters. To Turkey, the YPG was an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group classified as a terrorist force by both Ankara and Washington. The U.S. military played down the links and embraced the YPG as the most effective force to fight Islamic State.
Even then, administration officials made clear the president had no qualms about Turkey attacking Kurdish forces.
“I think the president would say to you: that’s not our fight,” a U.S. official said at the time. “The YPG certainly was allied with us in the fight against ISIS, but we were not allied with the YPG in the fight against Turkey.”
After criticism from lawmakers and U.S. military officials, Mr. Trump shifted his stance two months later. Mr. Trump said he would keep 200 peacekeepers in Syria “for a period of time.”
U.S. military officials instead cut the number of American troops from 2,000 to 1,000, which The Wall Street Journal reported in March. Gen. Joe Dunford, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disputed the Journal article and said in a statement the Pentagon still planned to reduce troops to a few hundred.
Mr. Jeffrey, the special envoy on Islamic State, persuaded Mr. Trump to keep several hundred U.S. troops at a remote base in southern Syria. He and his team said the troops would discourage Tehran from forging a new land route to ferry arms from Iran to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
“This was their clever trick: Argue that it is all connected to hard-line Iran policy and the president will agree with it,” a State Department official said.
Mr. Trump took little interest in some details of his policy decisions, allowing advisers to interpret the president’s wishes in ways supporting their own views, according to current and former administration officials involved in the discussions.
That fueled a rift between administration officials who saw the Kurdish fighters as critical partners, and those who saw them as Turkey did—a threat. Mr. Trump expected the Syrian withdrawal to move forward.
After years of balancing competing Kurdish and Turkish interests, Trump administration policy began to shift toward Ankara, as new advisers sympathetic to Turkey joined the team.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy on Islamic State under both Messrs. Obama and Trump, championed the YPG. He talked about the possibility that they could live side-by-side with Turkey, but only if American troops were there.
As the Trump administration soured on the relationship, Mr. McGurk advised the YPG to strengthen ties with the Assad regime in the event the U.S. withdrew its forces. Mr. Jeffrey, who took over the post in December, discouraged that since the U.S. still wanted to see an eventual end to Mr. Assad’s role.
While Mr. Trump made clear his intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, administration officials told Kurdish leaders that America planned to be there for the long haul.
One U.S. official who defended the administration policy said Washington tried to make its Kurdish partners understand that their relationship with the U.S. was “temporary, transactional and tactical.”
Under fire
As soon as Turkey launched its attack, the U.S. realized that the fighting wouldn’t be limited to a small 70-mile stretch of the Turkey-Syria border, as first expected. Cross-border shelling spread across the 300-mile border where Kurds controlled the Syrian side.
Two days into the offensive, Turkish artillery shells landed a few hundred yards from a hillside military base near Kobani, where American troops were stationed.
U.S. officials concluded that it was a deliberate attack, intended to prompt Mr. Trump to order all American troops out of Syria. Turkey denied targeting Americans.
As the shelling intensified around Kobani, residents fled south toward the LaFarge Cement Factory, which has served as the headquarters for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria. They told a local journalist they didn’t believe Turkey would dare fire on a U.S. base. Soldiers turned the families away.
A video shot by North Press Agency, and confirmed by Storyful—which is owned by News Corp., the Journal’s parent company—shows displaced families camped in partially destroyed buildings in the shadow of the facility. Coalition helicopters landed nearby, as children climbed on barriers to watch.
Another video shot near the U.S. base showed a woman in a crowd confronting the U.S. coalition forces, who were off-camera.
“You should all leave us if you are not going to stop this war,” she said in Kurdish, translated to English on the video. “Until when are we supposed to live with this? Shall all our children get killed before you do something? We are burying our children and you are asking us to wait. Until when?”
Many U.S. soldiers in Syria, who came to respect their Kurdish comrades, were demoralized. One U.S. military official who worked closely with the Kurdish fighters said he was too distraught to talk about it.
Some Syrians who sought sanctuary in Iraq were turned back at the border. Others crossed without permission.
Mahmoud Ismail fled the first airstrikes on the Syrian town of Darbasiyah near the Turkish border with his family. He had heard about Mr. Trump’s announcement only the previous day.
“I thought, we’re done this time,” said Mr. Ismail, who paid a smuggler to escort his family to northern Iraq.
Kurdish leaders reacted angrily. On Sunday, they reached out to Damascus for protection, paving the way for an alliance the Trump administration had sought to prevent.
“If we have to choose between compromises and genocide of our people, we will surely choose the life of our people,” said Gen. Abdi, the Kurdish commander who listened to Mr. Jeffrey’s concerns of a Saigon-style American exit.
Hussein Ibrahim fled Syria with his wife and daughter after a mortar landed in the yard of their house in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, the site of some of the heaviest fighting.
Mr. Ibrahim, 52 years old, had already been a refugee once before in the Syrian conflict. He had just finished refurbishing the family home when Turkey invaded last week.
“The oven was still in its box,” his wife, Kurdistan Yousef, said. The couple expected their new furnishings to be used by Turkish-backed forces.
“There is a saying that Kurds have no friends but the mountains and it’s true,” Mr. Ibrahim said. “We are always betrayed by our friends and this is the biggest betrayal of all.”
Vivian Salama and Michael Gordon in Washington, Sune Rasmussen in Duhok, Iraq, and Raja Abdulrahim in Istanbul contributed to this article.
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at, Isabel Coles at and Nancy A. Youssef at

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