This post first appeared on Dan Rather’s News & Guts on Oct. 22, 2019.
Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just made a deal at the expense of a key American ally in the battle against ISIS. Thanks to Trump, the US wasn’t even in the room.
What Went Wrong?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) blistering op-ed in The Washington Post criticized Trump’s withdrawal of US forces from Syria as a “grave strategic mistake.” A setback for the US battle against ISIS and other terrorists, it’s an invitation for “the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence.”
And there’s Putin, as McConnell observed: “[W]e are ignoring Russia’s efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.”
Who’s on Russia’s Team?
Basha al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, has been plagued by civil war since the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011. His atrocities— the use of chemical weapons and torture — make him a war criminal. Assad needs the backing of Iran and Russia to survive.
Putin s trying to re-establish Russia as a major global player. To preserve influence in the Mideast when Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi fell in 2011, Putin offered Assad a lifeline and, eventually, military support.
Who on America’s Team?
The Kurds are indigenous to the Mideast and comprise Syria’s largest ethnic minority— approximately 2 million people. They are also an American ally and a nexus of US influence in the region. Since 2014, the Kurds have lost 11,000 fighters battling ISIS. Large Kurdish populations also reside in Turkey (15-25% of the population), Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. Long suppressed and denied basic rights, the Kurds seek autonomy in an area near the Syria-Turkey border that they recaptured from ISIS in 2015.
Erdogan is president of Turkey, a member of NATO. He sees the Kurds near his southern border as terrorists and a catalyst for his intensifying domestic problems with Turkish Kurds.
Whose Team Is Trump On?
Jan. 6, 2017: The US director of national intelligence issues a declassified version of a report outlining Kremlin interference with the 2016 US presidential election. It also connects the dots to Syria:
- “Beginning in June … Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia, and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine.” (p. 1)
- “Pro-Kremlin proxy Vladimir Zhirinovskiy, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, proclaimed just before the election that if President-elect Trump won, Russia would ‘drink champagne’ in anticipation of being able to advance its positions on Syria and Ukraine.” (p. 4)
Jan. 28, 2017: In Putin’s congratulatory call after Trump’s inauguration, they discuss Syria. As in all subsequent conversations, we don’t know what they said.
May 2, 2017: In Trump’s phone call with Putin, they discuss Syria.
July 7, 2017: At the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Trump and Putin discuss Syria. Trump then confiscates the interpreter’s notes of the session.
Nov. 11, 2017: At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) in Vietnam, Trump and Putin discuss Syria.
Nov. 21, 2017: In a phone call the day after a rare Putin meeting with Assad, Trump and Putin discuss Syria.
July 16, 2018: At the Helsinki summit, Russia’s US ambassador says later that Syria is the primary topic of a two-hour conversation between Trump and Putin.
Nov. 30, 2018: At the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, Trump and Putin discuss Syria. Two weeks later,The Washington Post reports that as a result of Trump’s efforts to conceal his communications with Putin, US officials say “there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years.”
Dec. 20, 2018: Trump announces America’s withdrawal from Syria. Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigns in protest.
Mar. 5, 2019: Responding to bipartisan criticism, Trump reverses himself, saying that a “stabilizing force” of American and European troops will remain in Syria.
“In recent months”: The US encourages Kurdish fighters to dismantle their defenses in northern Syria, saying it will help assure Erdogan that they pose no threat to Turkey. With the US promising protection, they blow up their own tunnels, destroy munitions and trenches, and leave themselves vulnerable.
Oct. 6, 2019: In yet another phone call for which we have no transcript, Trump gives Erdogan a green light to move forward with his “long-planned operation into Northern Syria” against the Kurds. As Turkey invades, the Kurds turn their attention to self-defense and ISIS-connected detainees escape from Kurdish custody. Facing wholesale slaughter, the Kurds ask Assad for help.
Oct. 13, 2019: Trump orders the withdrawal of all remaining US troops in Syria. Russia and Assad move into areas that, a week earlier, had been under US control.
Oct. 15, 2019: A Russian reporter posts a video showing an abandoned US military base that Russians now occupy. At another base, American bombers mount airstrikes to destroy US munitions so they won’t fall into Syrian and Russian hands.
Oct. 17, 2019: Vice President Mike Pence announces that he and Erdogan have agreed to a deal. It requires the Kurds to abandon their homes and their land. Turkey gives up nothing, but gets relief from US sanctions. Pence calls it a ceasefire. Turkey says it’s a “pause in operations.” Hours later, even the “pause” is over.
Why a five-day“pause? So Erdogan can meet with a victorious Putin on Oct. 22.
Oct. 22, 2019: Putin and Erdogan seal the fate of Syria’s Kurdish fighters. The deal blesses Turkey’s operation against the Kurds and provides that Russian and Turkish military police will patrol the Syria-Turkey border area. Former presidential envoy Brett McGurk summarizes the outcome:
Transcripts We Need to See
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that releasing transcripts of conversations between Trump and Putin requires Russia’s consent. Nonsense. US courts can issue an order requiring their release. Given Trump’s promise of perpetual obstruction, that’s almost certainly what it will take. And it needs to happen — soon.
“With you, all roads lead to Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told Trump.
It always comes back to Russia. The question is why.