Why Donald Trump's change in Syria policy matters
FT deputy editor Roula Khalaf and Middle East editor Andrew England discuss what the US president's abrupt change of policy towards Turkey and Syria means for the Kurds and the wider region
Produced by Veronica Kan-Dapaah and Jamie Han
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ROULA KHALAF: President Donald Trump has surprised the Pentagon, and even his allies in Washington, as well as the international community, with his abrupt decision to give Turkey the green light to launch a cross-border military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces. That's the Kurdish-dominated group that American troops have armed, trained, and fought alongside in the battle with ISIS. With me to discuss the possible outcomes is Andrew England, the Financial Times Middle East editor. Andrew, first of all, tell us why is this important? Why should anyone care about what's going on with a small group in Syria?
ANDREW ENGLAND: Yeah, it's a small group, but it's a very important group. For several years now, they've been at the forefront of the US's battle against ISIS in Northeastern Syria which is an area controlled by the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Now, these guys have been on the ground.
They've been very successful in reclaiming territory from ISIS. They've captured thousands of ISIS fighters, about 1,000 foreign fighters. They are detaining those fighters, plus their families, wives, and children, this kind of thing. So the main concern for Europeans looking at this is what happens to the battle against ISIS?
ROULA KHALAF: And what happens to all these fighters? Because many European countries don't want to actually take them back.
ANDREW ENGLAND: Absolutely, and the concern is, if Turkey does launch an operation into Northeastern Syria against the Kurds, then they'll be distracted. The detention of all these Syrian ISIS fighters would be in jeopardy. What happens to them? What happens to the battle against ISIS? Does ISIS reemerge? So that's one element.
ROULA KHALAF: Why is Turkey so determined to move into Syria? The Syrian war is practically over now. So why start a new front?
ANDREW ENGLAND: You're right. Turkey has for years had concerns about what they believe to be Kurdish separatists. The PKK, a Turkish group, been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years, and Turkey sees the Syrian curds as Kurds as an extension of the PKK. So in Turkey's eyes, the US has been arming, training terrorists-- what Turkey calls terrorists-- on their border. So this has for a long time been a point of contention between the US and Turkey, Ankara.
ROULA KHALAF: And what do we think happened two nights ago? I know that for a while Donald Trump has wanted to bring the troops back home, and he tried earlier this year, at the end of last year, and his Secretary of defence, Jim Mattis at the time, resigned. So he went back on his decision, at least partly. What happened now?
ANDREW ENGLAND: Good question, but it's Donald Trump, so we're not really sure. What we do know is that Mr Trump had a telephone conversation with President Erdogan of Turkey on Sunday, and then on Sunday night, in the early hours, the White House put out a statement saying Turkey would launch operations in Northeast Syria soon. And US troops, who've been supporting the Kurdish militants but also been doing joint patrols with the Turks along that border as confidence-building measures, would withdraw. So basically, he was seen to be giving, like you said, a green light.
ROULA KHALAF: But he's essentially upended his own government's policy towards Syria and towards Turkey.
ANDREW ENGLAND: Yes, but it wouldn't be the first time, and to be fair, Donald Trump has long said that he wants to bring the troops home. As you said, in December last year, he announced that he was going to take an estimated 2,000 American troops out of Northeastern Syria. There's about 1,000 left.
So he's always made that a campaign issue, and he's always been very clear, he doesn't really care about what happens in Syria. For him, he said, the priority is the fight against ISIS. He claims the ISIS Caliphate, self-declared Caliphate is defeated, because ISIS has lost its territory. So he kind of wants to wash his hands of this now.
He says, look, the Kurds, that we paid them. They made lots of money. This is not our war. He said, we were supposed to be there for a short period, and we've been there all this time. Let's get home.
ROULA KHALAF: I see the logic in that, but what is the problem? Who actually gains from this, and is there any chance of not only ISIS coming back but other elements, other parts of the Syrian war, erupting again?
ANDREW ENGLAND: I think the last thing Syria needs is a new front and any more instability. That Northeastern region has pretty much stayed out of the Civil War that's been going on since 2011 in Syria, and the Kurds haven't fought against Assad. But what this does, it sends a message to-- or this is the fear-- it sends a message to any US allies, local allies who've been fighting on the ground, we don't care about you. You're expendable. We can dump you.
And it will be seen as a symbolic victory, at least, to Iran and Russia which have sided with President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president during the Civil War, because it will be seen as another sign of the US withdrawing from the Middle East symbolically. Just saying, we no longer care about what happens in the Middle East, which would be seen to embolden Iran and Russia, which have taken advantage of European and US marginalisation in Syria to extend their own influence.
ROULA KHALAF: Has Donald Trump received any support from anyone?
ANDREW ENGLAND: President Erdogan, [LAUGHING] no. To be fair, Republicans in the US spoke--
ROULA KHALAF: Yes, I saw that Lindsey Graham said that the decision was short-sighted and irresponsible.
ANDREW ENGLAND: Exactly, a disaster in the making. Democrats have spoken out against. European governments have put out statements saying that they're concerned about what happens in the fight against ISIS, anything that brings more stability. Aid agencies have raised concerns about another flood of displaced people.
ROULA KHALAF: It's really interesting, Andrew, that the concern is not about the Kurds, and yet the history of the Kurds has been one where they are repeatedly let down by Western allies that they work with. What happens to the Kurds in this case?
ANDREW ENGLAND: This was always going to be a huge question anyway, because the Kurds, the SDF, they've used the battle against ISIS and the Civil War to carve out this kind of autonomous enclave in the Northeast. Now, the Assad regime has been fighting rebels and opposition across the country. So they've stayed clear of this, and they've allowed the SDF to maintain their autonomy, fight against ISIS, and have their alliance with the US. At some stage, this was always going to become a question of what happens next?
Now, the SDF has had talks with the Assad regime previously, as the war in Syria has diminished, and they have to try and work out what kind of arrangement there will be. This could actually push the SDF closer to the Assad regime, and whether they can negotiate some form of autonomous, decentralised rule or not, but we don't know. That's going to be a big question that's got to be resolved, and it was always going to be a sticking point as the Assad regime reasserts control over most of the rest of the country. Once they've done that, then the question of what happens in this Northeastern area on the Turkish--
ROULA KHALAF: Is there an argument that Donald Trump is ultimately right in his analysis of the situation? Because what else would the Kurds do, and where else would they go, if they're squeezed between Turkey which doesn't want them to have any autonomy and the regime in Damascus which also doesn't want them to have autonomy. So unless the US protects them for the much longer term, they're going to have to make that choice and to re-engage with the Assad regime.
ANDREW ENGLAND: Look, I think the Kurdish issue in the Northeast is always going to have to be resolved. There's got to be a solution to it at some point, or there will be conflict. And Trump is correct in saying that the battle, or this conflict, the simmering conflict between Ankara and Kurdish separatists has been going on for decades. The question is how you manage it.
What had happened after Trump was persuaded not to withdraw all his troops, after saying he would, in December last year, we've seen sort of some confidence-building measures. So US troops, since August, have been doing joint patrols with the Turks on the border, and they've been doing joint air patrols, and the SDF was removing some of its defences close to the border. The problem was Erdogan wasn't satisfied. He wanted to go deeper into Syria. He wanted to create-- he wants to create a safe zone 32 kilometres deep inside Syria.
The Americans weren't going to go that deep. So now, seems like he's convinced Trump that the way to resolve this is allow him to move Turkish troops in and create this zone. And then Erdogan argues that that will allow for the resettlement of some of the 3.6 million refugees that Turkey is hosting, and that's a huge domestic pressure on Erdogan.
ROULA KHALAF: Assuming that the refugees want to go back.
ANDREW ENGLAND: Assuming they do and assuming that it's not forced, would that shake up the whole demographics of this region? You're sending Arab Syrians back into this area who didn't come from this area, but still, you're going to have to resolve the Kurdish question. And so the question is should the US be there to play a leading role in confidence-building measures between the Kurdish militants and Turkey whilst the resolution is resolved? And should there be greater political pressure on actually getting the settlement, or some sort of political transition in Syria, that everybody seems to have forgotten about.
ROULA KHALAF: Well, yeah, we've been waiting for a very long time for a political transition in Syria. So my last question to you, Andrew, is given the backlash in DC, and indeed across the world, do you think this time President Trump will stick with the decision, or you think by tomorrow he would have said, OK, now I understand the better, and I will not pull all the troops.
ANDREW ENGLAND: I think that's what we need to wait and see what happens. After there was a backlash, Trump tweeted that he would economically destroy Turkey if they did things that were against certain limits. We don't know what that means. Was it a response for the backlash, is it just bluster, or would he put pressure on Turkey not to go far?
Because the other question we have to ask is what will Erdogan do next? He's been for months talking about the need to create this zone deep inside Syria and constantly belligerent rhetoric against the Kurdish militants. How will he act now?
Now, he's got the green light. The onus is on what does he do? Now, will he go deep into Syria and potentially create that conflict with the Syrian Kurds, or will they just go in so far, where they don't go deep enough to actually trigger a bigger conflict? So there are many variables I think we're going to have to watch, but clearly, Jim Mattis, who stood up to Trump last time and then resigned, he's gone. There are less adults in the room, as we say, in the White House, in the administration, to put pressure on Trump, but clearly, there is a Republican backlash which might make him think twice.
ROULA KHALAF: So a story that we will keep on watching very closely with our correspondents on the ground and with you here, in London. Thank you, Andrew.
ANDREW ENGLAND: Thank you, Roula.