Just last week, two top Trump administration officials publicly defended the U.S. Syria strategy and explained why a Turkish attack on Kurds in northeastern Syria would ruin it completely. Now, everything they were working on is in tatters, and the dangers they warned about are coming true — thanks to President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Right now ... we’re embarked on implementing an agreement that would establish a zone along the Turkish-Syria border,” Joel Rayburn, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Oct. 2. “It’s meant to be a zone that’s safe for both Turkey and for ... Syrians. So far, the implementation is going pretty well.”
Rayburn was touting what’s been called the “buffer zone,” or “security mechanism,” that the United States and Turkey had been working on for almost a year. The idea was to address Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish forces near its border — specifically to prevent their invading and killing our Kurdish allies, as they just began doing Wednesday.
Rayburn warned that a Turkish attack in northeastern Syria would not only be a disaster for the region, but would also set back efforts to solve the greater Syria conflict and hand a gift to America’s enemies. He also warned that it would hurt other U.S. objectives, namely to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State and push back against Iran.
“[The buffer zone] is part of a larger effort to stabilize at a political level the border between Turkey and Syria east of the Euphrates. ... That’s a necessary condition for the resolution of the overall conflict,” he said. “We certainly think that a conflict along the Turkey-Syria border would serve the interests of all the bad actors in the conflict and in the surrounding region — whether that’s [the Islamic State] or al-Qaeda or the Iranian regime, or what have you.”
Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said at the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States cannot carry out its strategy in Syria without partners such as the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who bore most of the burden in destroying the Islamic State’s caliphate. He said that the United States must not leave before stabilizing the area.
“And if we don’t do that, we will be back there, for sure, doing this again,” Mulroy said. “We owe it to the people that live there, who have beared unspeakable burdens, and we owe it to the men and women that are going to come after us at the State Department, at the Defense Department, that we don’t just leave this undone."
The U.S. military was touting U.S.-Turkey joint patrols in the buffer zone as recently as Saturday. On Sunday, Trump spoke to Erdogan, after which all hell broke loose. The Turks announced they would invade. Trump ordered the U.S. military to pull 50 to 100 troops away from the border.
Trump went on a Twitter rampage, alternatively bragging that he was ending “endless wars,” then threatening Erdogan not to move forward with the operation Trump had just endorsed. By Monday afternoon, the Defense Department put out a statement seeking to clarify the policy, but panic had already broken out on the ground.
A senior State Department official told me Tuesday that the entire buffer zone plan had been “put on ice.” The U.S. military stopped sharing intelligence with Turkish forces, removed its military liaisons and pulled back two out of three of the northernmost outposts, which were in the path of the Turkish advance.
At best, cutting off U.S.-Turkey military cooperation was supposed to slow down the Turkish assault. At least, U.S. forces wouldn’t be directly involved in the slaughter of the Kurdish allies they had fought with side by side for years.
In truth, the United States never met its commitments to the safe zone; the United States never deployed enough troops there and never fulfilled its promise to persuade the Kurds to leave the area. But the State Department official said that Erdogan was probably just biding his time all along.
“President Erdogan always had an alternative safe zone in his mind … on the assumption we were leaving and we would leave it all up to them,” the State Department official said.
On his call Sunday with Trump, Erdogan pitched Trump directly on his version of the safe zone, a Turkish-controlled area where millions of Syrian refugees could be resettled with European financial support. It’s far-fetched, to say the least, but Trump bought it. Erdogan was betting he could cut out the entire U.S. government from the process, and he was right.
“He thought he could fix it if he went to Trump. So therefore, he decided, ‘I don’t have to adhere to the rules of the game,’ ” the official said. “We gave the Turks essentially everything they wanted. Erdogan always wanted a different plan.”
During the Sunday call, the official said, Trump told Erdogan that he did not support the invasion and that the United States would not participate. Trump also offered Erdogan what the official called “a really good package” of incentives not to go through with it, including a presidential visit and the resumption of F-35 sales, which were halted after Erdogan decided to buy Russian missile defense systems.
Erdogan went forward with the invasion, but the White House announced his visit for next month anyway.
Inside the U.S. government, there’s now widespread consternation about how Trump has handled Syria and what might come next. The SDF has effectively shut down its partnership with the U.S. military and is focusing on its fight against the advancing Turkish troops.
Trump is tweeting that Turkey is now responsible for the tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters and family members packed in sparsely guarded camps in northeastern Syria, but nobody knows what will happen. The already incoherent and under-resourced U.S. strategy for Syria has now collapsed, and there are several possible consequences — all of them bad.
“Believe me,” the official said. “There is no plan B.”