Saved by the Russians

OPINION|TD ORIGINALS

Russia Isn’t Getting the Recognition It Deserves on Syria

Scott Ritter

Russia Isn't Getting the Recognition It Deserves on Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sergei Chirikov / AP)

At a time when the credibility of the United States as either an unbiased actor or reliable ally lies in tatters, Russia has emerged as the one major power whose loyalty to its allies is unquestioned, and whose ability to serve as an honest broker between seemingly intractable opponents is unmatched.

If there is to be peace in Syria, it will be largely due to the patient efforts of Moscow employing deft negotiation, backed up as needed by military force, to shape conditions conducive for a political solution to a violent problem. If ever there was a primer for the art of diplomacy, the experience of Russia in Syria from 2011 to the present is it.

Like the rest of the world, Russia was caught off guard by the so-called Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011, forced to watch from the sidelines as the old order in Tunisia and Egypt was swept aside by popular discontent. While publicly supporting the peaceful transition of power in Tunis and Cairo, in private the Russian government watched the events unfolding in Egypt and the Maghreb with trepidation, concerned that the social and political transformations underway were a continuation of the kind of Western-backed “color revolutions” that had occurred previously in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).

When, in early 2011, the Arab Spring expanded into Libya, threatening the rule of longtime Russian client Moammar Gadhafi, Russia initially supported the creation of a U.N.-backed no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes, only to watch in frustration as the U.S. and NATO used it as a vehicle to launch a concerted air campaign in a successful bid to drive Gadhafi from power.

By the time Syria found itself confronting popular demonstrations against the rule of President Bashar Assad, Russia—still struggling to understand the root cause of the unrest—had become wary of the playbook being employed by the U.S. and NATO in response. While Russia was critical of the violence used by the Assad government in responding to the anti-government demonstrations in the spring of 2011, it blocked efforts by the U.S. and Europe to impose economic sanctions against the Syrian government, viewing them as little more than the initial salvo of a broader effort to achieve regime change in Damascus using the Libyan model.

Moscow’s refusal to help facilitate that Western-sponsored regime change, however, did not translate into unequivocal support for the continued rule of Assad. Russia supported the appointment of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head up a process for bringing a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, and endorsed Annan’s six-point peace plan, put forward in March 2012, which included the possibility of a peaceful transition of power away from Assad.

At the same time Russia was promoting a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis, the U.S. was spearheading a covert program to provide weapons and equipment to anti-Assad forces, funneling shipments from Libya through Turkey and into rebel-controlled areas of Syria. This CIA-run effort, which eventually morphed into a formal operation known as Timber Sycamore, helped fuel an increase in the level of violence inside Syria that made it impossible for the Assad government to fully implement the Annan plan. The inevitable collapse of the Annan initiative was used by the U.S. and its European allies to call for U.N. sanctions against Syria, which were again rejected by Russia.

While Russia continued to call for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that allowed for the potential of Assad being replaced, it insisted that this decision would be made by a process that included the Syrian government, as opposed to the U.S. demand that Assad must first step down.

The Military Solution

The failed Annan initiative was replaced by a renewed U.N.-sponsored process, known as Geneva II, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat with extensive U.N. experience. The Geneva process stalled as Brahimi sought to bridge the gap between the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition—which insisted upon Assad’s resignation as a precondition to any talks about the future of Syria—and Russia, which continued to insist that the Assad government have a voice in determining Syria’s future.

Complicating these talks was the escalation of violence inside Syria, where anti-Assad forces, building upon the massive amount of military aid received from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, aggressively pushed for a military victory that would moot the Geneva II process.

By June 2013 the situation had devolved to the point that the U.S., citing allegations that the Syrian government was using a nerve agent against rebel forces, was considering the establishment of no-fly zones in northern Syria and along the Jordanian border. While sold as a humanitarian move designed to create safe zones for Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting, the real purpose of these zones was to carve out large sections of Syrian territory where the opposition could organize and prepare for war under the umbrella of U.S. air power without fear of Syrian government retaliation.

The concept of Syria’s chemical weapons being used by the U.S. to justify military action against the Syrian government was not hypothetical. In 2012, President Barack Obama had declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be considered a “red line,” forcing the U.S. to act. When, in August 2013, a major chemical weapons incident occurred in Ghouta (conclusive attribution for the attack does not exist; the U.S. and NATO contend that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, which the Russians and the Syrian government claim were carried out by anti-Assad opposition for the purpose of compelling U.S. intervention), it looked like the U.S. would step in.

Committing to a larger war in Syria was not a politically popular move in the U.S., given the recent experience in Iraq, and when Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September 2013, the Russians suggested a solution—the disarmament of Syrian chemical weapons under the supervision of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). When Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to that possibility, Russia and Syria jumped on the opportunity, paving the way for one of the great disarmament achievements of modern times, an action that won the OPCW the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013.

The disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons was a huge success, for which Russia received little recognition, despite the major role it played in conceiving and overseeing its implementation. Russia had hoped that the disarmament process could lead to the establishment of international confidence in the Assad government that would translate into a diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva. This was not to be; a major peace conference planned for 2014 collapsed, and efforts to revive the failed talks were sidelined by the escalation of violence in Syria, as the armed opposition, sensing victory, pressed its attacks on the Syrian government.

The situation in Syria was further complicated when, in 2013, the organization formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and started carving out a so-called caliphate from the ungovernable expanses of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Having established its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Islamic State launched a dramatic offensive in early 2014, capturing large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. By 2015, the Syrian government, under pressure from anti-Assad rebels and the forces of Islamic State, was on the brink of collapse.

The consequences of the loss of Syria to forces dominated by radical Islamic ideology do not seem to have been fully considered by those in the West, such as the U.S. and its European allies, which were funneling military aid to the rebel forces. For Russia, however, which had its own experiences with Muslim separatist movements in the Caucasus region, such a result was deemed an existential threat, with thousands of Russian citizens fighting on the side of Islamic State and the anti-Assad opposition who would logically seek to return to Russia to continue the struggle once victory had been achieved in Syria. In September 2015, Putin urged the Russian Parliament to approve the intervention of the Russian military on the side of the Syrian government. The Parliament passed the resolution, thus beginning one of the most successful military interventions in modern times.

The impact of the Russian intervention was as dramatic as it was decisive. Almost immediately, the Russian air force helped turn the tide on the field of battle, allowing the Syrian army to launch attacks against both the anti-Assad opposition and Islamic State after years of losing ground. The Russian intervention helped pave the way for the commitment by Hezbollah and Iran of tens of thousands of ground troops who helped tipped the scale in favor of the Syrian government. The presence of Russian forces nipped in the bud all talk of Western military intervention and created the conditions for the Syrian government to eventually recapture much of the territory it had lost to Islamic State and the anti-Assad rebels.

Unheralded Peacemaker

The connection between military action and diplomacy is a delicate one. For some nations, like the United States, diplomacy is but a front for facilitating military action—the efforts to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq stand as a prime example. For Russia, however, the decision to intervene militarily in Syria was not seen as an end unto itself, but rather as the means by which Russia could shape the political landscape in such a manner as to make a political solution realistic. From the Russian perspective, the Geneva II process was an empty shell, having been hijacked by Saudi Arabia and its anti-Assad proxies.

In January 2017, Russia took the diplomatic offensive, initiating its own peace process through a series of summits held in the Kazakh capital of Astana. This process, which brought together Turkey, the Syrian government and Iran, together with Russia, quickly supplanted the Geneva II talks as the most viable vehicle for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. By directly linking diplomatic talks with the fighting on the ground, the Astana process had a relevance that Geneva II lacked. For its part, Russia was able to woo Turkey away from insisting that Assad must leave, to a stance that recognized the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation, and a recognition that Assad was the legitimate leader of Syria, at least for the time being. The Astana process was lengthy and experienced its share of ups and downs. But today it serves as the foundation of a peace process that, unlike any of its predecessors, has a real chance of success.

Bridging the gap between the finesse of diplomacy and the brutal violence of military action is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. For its part, the United Nations has undertaken so-called peacekeeping operations with mixed effect. In recognition of the importance and difficulty of this kind of work, the Nobel Committee awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize to the U.N. Peacekeepers. When the diplomatic solutions reached in Astana needed to be implemented in Syria, Russia turned to the most unlikely source for turning objectives into reality: the Russian military police. A relatively new entity in the Russian military establishment, formed only in 2012, the military police were tasked with a wide range of missions, including convoy protection, area security, restoring law and order and resettlement operations.

In late 2016, as the Syrian army was positioned to recapture the city of Aleppo from rebel forces, Russia deployed a battalion of military police to Syria. The mission of these troops was not to engage in frontline fighting, but rather to restore law and order and win the trust and confidence of a civilian population wary of the potential for retaliation at the hands of the victorious Syrian army.

By all accounts, the Russian military police performed admirably, and soon the Russian ministry of defense dispatched more battalions of these new peacekeepers, who quickly established a reputation of being fair arbiters of the many cease-fire agreements brokered through the Astana process. The Russian military police were ubiquitous, whether policing the no-man’s land separating warring parties, escorting convoys of rebel fighters and their families to safe zones or providing security for OPCW inspectors.

The final phases of the Syrian conflict are playing out in northern Syria today. The last vestiges of the anti-Assad opposition, having been taken over by al-Qaida, are dug in in their final bastion in Idlib Province, their ultimate defeat at the hands of the combined Russian-Syrian armed forces all but assured. The American intervention in northeastern Syria, begun in 2015 as a means of confronting and defeating Islamic State but continued and expanded in 2017 as a vehicle for destabilizing the Assad government, has imploded in the face of a geopolitical reality in transition, facilitated in large part by the combined forces of Russian diplomacy in Astana and Russian-led military action on the ground in Syria.

By successfully wooing Turkey away from the U.S., Russia has dictated the reality on the ground in Syria, greenlighting a Turkish incursion that put the American forces deployed there in an impossible situation, prompting their evacuation. While the U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in Syria, occupying a border crossing point at Tanf and a series of military positions along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in order to secure nearby Syrian oil fields, the ability of the U.S. to logistically sustain this force is doubtful, making its eventual withdrawal from Syria inevitable.

Moreover, by compelling an American withdrawal from northeastern Syria, Russia broke the back of the U.S.-supported Kurdish autonomous entity known as Rojava, and in doing so prevented a larger war between Turkey, the Kurds and the U.S.

In greenlighting the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, the Russians invoked the 1998 Adana Treaty, which guarantees the sovereign inviolability of Syria’s borders. The processes involved in stabilizing the Turkish-Syrian border, defeating the anti-Assad forces in Idlib, evicting the Americans from Syrian soil, and integrating the Kurds into a future Syrian government are lengthy, complex and not necessarily assured of a positive outcome. One thing is certain, however: The prospects for peace in Syria are greater today than at any time since 2011. And the fact that Russia has deployed even more battalions of its military police to Syria to oversee implementation of the current cease-fire bodes well for the prospects of success.

Despite literally salvaging victory from the jaws of defeat, the scope of the Russian accomplishment in Syria is muted in the United States, thanks to rampant Russophobia that has insinuated itself into every aspect of the domestic political discourse. Under normal circumstances, the Russian accomplishment in Syria would have been deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, if not for the Russian diplomats and leaders who oversaw the effort to forge peace from the furnace of war, then at least for the Russian military police whose actions in Syria embody the very definition of humanitarian peacekeeping.

Over time, international historians will come to appreciate what Russia accomplished in Syria, potentially ending a sectarian conflict that could easily have served as the foundation for a decades-long conflagration with regional and global consequences.

Whether American historians will ever be capable of doing the same is unknown. But this much is true: In the years to come, children will be born of parents whose lives were not terminated or otherwise destroyed by a larger Syrian conflict that almost assuredly would have transpired if not for the honest broker services provided by Russia. Intentionally or not, Russian diplomacy prevented the United States from embarking on a foreign policy disaster of its own making. While it is highly doubtful that Americans will ever muster the moral fortitude to say so publicly, those who know the truth should find the time to whisper, “Thanks, Putin,” between the barrage of anti-Russian propaganda that floods the American mainstream media today.

Like it or not, in Syria, the Russians saved us from ourselves.

Scott Ritter
Contributor
Scott Ritter spent more than a dozen years in the intelligence field, beginning in 1985 as a ground intelligence officer with the US Marine Corps, where he served with the Marine Corps component of the Rapid…

It’s the Oil, Stupid

US Military Envisions Broad Defense of Syrian Oilfields

Esper says US will keep Syrian government away from Syrian oil

The Pentagon intends to retain control of Syria’s oilfields going forward, and says they will repel anyone else trying to take that oil with “overwhelming force.” This has become the chief, and materially only, military goal of the US military operation in Syria.

Since President Trump announced his intention to control the oil, and conceivably to try to take some of it on behalf of the US, the Pentagon has been revising the Syria mission around controlling the oil. This has included sending more troops and tanks.

Pentagon officials have tried to build this narrative around keeping ISIS from reclaiming the oilfields, since they held them once. With ISIS barely existing anymore, that’s not a realistic threat, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper conceded on Monday that the deployments of US forces are meant to “deny access” to the oil to either Russia or the Syrian government.

Keeping Syria’s oil away from Syria is a potential problem, but Esper says the goal is to give some of the money to the Kurdish SDF to keep themselves armed, and to keep supporting the US military mission in Syria.

Giving the Kurds money to help with the US mission would sound a lot better if the US mission wasn’t to keep the oil for itself, and with the US increasingly cutting its ties to the Kurds, and Trump increasingly ripping into the Kurds on social media, it seems like that ship has already sailed.

Which doesn’t mean any necessarily substantial changes in the US plan, beyond cutting the Kurds out of the equation of who gets money out of an oil scheme, assuming one ever actually happens.

Looting Syria’s Oil

Trump always talked about “taking the oil” when the US invaded a country. Now he thinks he has a chance in Syria.

Wall Street imperialism, Smedley Butler and all that. Trump wants to leave Syria, but then thinks: “We will take the oil on the way out.” What a great image for the USA around the world!

That is a hell of a way to win hearts and minds! Washington forgot about that a long time ago. Now it is flat-out.

Trump Wants Deal With Exxon or Other Company to Take Syrian Oil

‘We should be able to take some’

Having sent growing numbers of troops into eastern Syria explicitly to control the oil, President Trump now says he is seeking a deal with Exxon Mobil or “one of our great companies” to go into occupied Syria and take the oil.

Trump has long suggested that in his view, the US should be able to just take oil from countries it is involved in militarily, as a way to recover some of the costs of his various wars. Trump said on Sunday that the oil is valuable and “we should be able to take some also.”

That Trump is sold on this idea is one thing, but convincing a US Oil and Gas Major to go along with the operation is another thing. The legal basis, particularly internationally, of taking Syrian oil without Syrian permission, and keeping US military forces there to keep Syria from stopping them, is going to be complicated, to say the least.

Trump’s conviction that legally it’s probably fine, after all, doesn’t mean the US company, whichever it turns out to be, wouldn’t get sued in the US or internationally for looting Syria’s oil.

These huge multinational companies are notoriously risk-averse about conflict, and would likely be so about joining the president in an oil-taking scheme of this sort. That means while Trump continues to war to keep the oil, he’s going to face a big job selling the idea to any company.

The Wars in Syria Ending

The wars in Syria may be finally coming to an end, with the US out of the country.
The Final Outcome of the Multiple Syrian Wars Is Now in Sight

The sectarian and ethnic civil wars that have ravaged a large part of the Middle Eastover the past 40 years are coming to an end. Replacing them is a new type of conflict in which protests akin to popular uprisings rock kleptocratic elites that justify their power by claiming to be the defenders of communities menaced by extreme violence or extinction.

I was sitting in my hotel room in Baghdad earlier in October thinking about writing an article about the return of peace to the Iraqi capital after the defeat of Isis. It has been three years since the last big bomb had exploded in its streets killing great numbers, something that used to happen with appalling frequency.

I was about to set to work when I heard a distant “pop-pop” sound that I identified as shots, but I thought it might be people celebrating a wedding or a football match. But the ripple of gunfire seemed to go on too long for this explanation to be true and I took the lift down to the lobby with the intention of finding out what was happening in the street outside the hotel. Before I got there, a man told me that the security forces were shooting protesters in nearby Tahrir Square: “There are 10 dead already.”

The death toll was to get a great deal worse than that: the official toll is 157 dead and 6,100 wounded, but doctors told me at the time that the real number of fatalities was far higher. The protesters, initially small in numbers, had wanted jobs, an end to corruption and improved essential services such as a better water and electricity. But somebody in government security, supplemented by pro-Iranian paramilitaries, had considered these demands for social and economic justice as a threat to the political status quo to be suppressed with live rifle fire, a curfew on the seven million inhabitants of Baghdad, and a shutdown of the internet.

Repression worked briefly, but such is the depth of rage against the theft of $450bn from Iraq’s oil revenues since 2003 that the protests were bound to break out again, as they have done this week.

I thought this was exactly what was happening a couple of weeks later when, back in the UK, I switched on the TV and saw masses of protesters in what was evidently a Middle East city. But it turned out to be Beirut not Baghdad, though the motivation is similar: anger against a ruling class saturated by corruption while failing to provide the basic services to the population. Encouragingly, in both Lebanon and Iraq, the leaders of different communities are finding that their followers increasingly view them as mafiosi and ignore appeals for communal solidarity.

It is a period of transition and one should never underestimate the ability of embattled communal leaders to press the right sectarian buttons in order to divide opposition to their predatory misrule.

I first went to the region in 1975, fresh from sectarian warfare in Northern Ireland, in order to report on the beginning of the Lebanese civil war between a mosaic of communities defined by religion and ethnicity. In later years in Iraq, I watched divisions between Sunni and Shia grow and produce sectarian bloodbaths after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Popular protests in Syria in 2011 swiftly turned into a sectarian and ethnic civil war of extraordinary ferocity that may now be coming to an end.

This is not because combatants on all sides have come to see the error of their ways or that they have suddenly noticed for the first time that their leaders are for the most part criminalised plutocrats. It is rather because winners and losers have emerged in these conflicts, so those in power can no longer divert attention from their all-embracing corruption by claiming that their community is in danger of attack from merciless foes.

Victors and vanquished has long been identifiable in Lebanon and became clear in Iraq with the capture of Mosul and the defeat of Isis in 2017. The winners and losers in the Syrian civil war have become ever more apparent over the last month as Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran take control of almost the whole country.

The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds had been able to create and expand their own quasi-states when central governments in Baghdad and Damascus were weak and under assault by Isis. The statelets were never going to survive the defeat of the Isis caliphate: the Iraqi Kurds lost the oil province of Kirkuk to the Iraqi army in 2017 and the Syrian Kurds have just seen their quasi-state of Rojava squeezed to extinction by the Turks on one side and the Syrian government on the other after Donald Trump withdrew US military protection.

The fate of the Kurds is a tragedy but an inevitable one. Once Isis had been defeated in the siege of Raqqa in 2017 there was no way that the US was going to maintain a Kurdish statelet beset by enemies on every side. For all their accusations of American treachery, the Kurdish leaders knew this, but they did not have an alternative protector to turn to, aside from Russia and Assad, who were never going to underwrite a semi-independent Kurdish state.

A problem in explaining developments in the Middle East over the last three years is that the US foreign policy establishment supported by most of the US and European media blame all negative developments on President Trump. This is a gross over-simplification when it is not wholly misleading. His abrupt and cynical abandonment of the Kurds to Turkey may have multiplied their troubles, but extracting the small US military from eastern Syria was sensible enough because it was over-matched by four dangerous and determined opponents: Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Assad government.

The final outcome of the multiple Syrian wars is now in sight: Turkey will keep a small, unstable enclave in Syria but the rest of the Syrian-Turkish border will be policed by Russian and Syrian government troops who will oversee the YPG withdrawal 21 miles to the south. The most important question is how far the Kurdish civilian population, who have fled the fighting, will find it safe enough to return. A crucial point to emerge from the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi last Tuesday is that Turkey is tiptoeing towards implicitly recognising the Assad government backed by Russia as the protector of its southern border against the YPG. This makes it unlikely that Ankara will do much to stop a Russian-Syrian government offensive to take, probably a slice at a time, the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition in Idlib.

The ingredient that made communal religious and sectarian hatreds so destructive in the past in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is that they opened the door to foreign intervention. Local factions became the proxies of outside countries pursuing their own interests which armed and financed them. For the moment at least, no foreign power has an interest in stirring the pot in this northern tier of the Middle East, the zone of war for 44 years, and there is just a fleeting chance of a durable peace.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)

Julian Assange

Assange in Court: What I Saw

I was deeply shaken while witnessing yesterday’s events in Westminster Magistrates Court. Every decision was railroaded through over the scarcely heard arguments and objections of Assange’s legal team, by a magistrate who barely pretended to be listening.

Before I get on to the blatant lack of fair process, the first thing I must note was Julian’s condition. I was badly shocked by just how much weight my friend has lost, by the speed his hair has receded and by the appearance of premature and vastly accelerated aging. He has a pronounced limp I have never seen before. Since his arrest he has lost over 15 kg in weight.

But his physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration. When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both. I will come to the important content of his statement at the end of proceedings in due course, but his difficulty in making it was very evident; it was a real struggle for him to articulate the words and focus his train of thought.

Until yesterday I had always been quietly skeptical of those who claimed that Julian’s treatment amounted to torture – even of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture – and skeptical of those who suggested he may be subject to debilitating drug treatments. But having attended the trials in Uzbekistan of several victims of extreme torture, and having worked with survivors from Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I can tell you that yesterday changed my mind entirely and Julian exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim brought blinking into the light, particularly in terms of disorientation, confusion, and the real struggle to assert free will through the fog of learned helplessness.

I had been even more skeptical of those who claimed, as a senior member of his legal team did to me on Sunday night, that they were worried that Julian might not live to the end of the extradition process. I now find myself not only believing it, but haunted by the thought. Everybody in that court yesterday saw that one of the greatest journalists and most important dissidents of our times is being tortured to death by the state, before our eyes. To see my friend, the most articulate man, the fastest thinker, I have ever known, reduced to that shambling and incoherent wreck, was unbearable. Yet the agents of the state, particularly the callous magistrate Vanessa Baraitser, were not just prepared but eager to be a part of this bloodsport. She actually told him that if he were incapable of following proceedings, then his lawyers could explain what had happened to him later. The question of why a man who, by the very charges against him, was acknowledged to be highly intelligent and competent, had been reduced by the state to somebody incapable of following court proceedings, gave her not a millisecond of concern.

The charge against Julian is very specific; conspiring with Chelsea Manning to publish the Iraq War logs, the Afghanistan war logs and the State Department cables. The charges are nothing to do with Sweden, nothing to do with sex, and nothing to do with the 2016 US election; a simple clarification the mainstream media appears incapable of understanding.

The purpose of yesterday’s hearing was case management; to determine the timetable for the extradition proceedings. The key points at issue were that Julian’s defense was requesting more time to prepare their evidence; and arguing that political offenses were specifically excluded from the extradition treaty. There should, they argued, therefore be a preliminary hearing to determine whether the extradition treaty applied at all.

The reasons given by Assange’s defense team for more time to prepare were both compelling and startling. They had very limited access to their client in jail and had not been permitted to hand him any documents about the case until one week ago. He had also only just been given limited computer access, and all his relevant records and materials had been seized from the Ecuadorean Embassy by the US Government; he had no access to his own materials for the purpose of preparing his defense.

Furthermore, the defense argued, they were in touch with the Spanish courts about a very important and relevant legal case in Madrid which would provide vital evidence. It showed that the CIA had been directly ordering spying on Julian in the Embassy through a Spanish company, UC Global, contracted to provide security there. Crucially this included spying on privileged conversations between Assange and his lawyers discussing his defense against these extradition proceedings, which had been in train in the USA since 2010. In any normal process, that fact would in itself be sufficient to have the extradition proceedings dismissed. Incidentally I learnt on Sunday that the Spanish material produced in court, which had been commissioned by the CIA, specifically includes high resolution video coverage of Julian and I discussing various matters.

The evidence to the Spanish court also included a CIA plot to kidnap Assange, which went to the US authorities’ attitude to lawfulness in his case and the treatment he might expect in the United States. Julian’s team explained that the Spanish legal process was happening now and the evidence from it would be extremely important, but it might not be finished and thus the evidence not fully validated and available in time for the current proposed timetable for the Assange extradition hearings.

For the prosecution, James Lewis QC stated that the government strongly opposed any delay being given for the defense to prepare, and strongly opposed any separate consideration of the question of whether the charge was a political offense excluded by the extradition treaty. Baraitser took her cue from Lewis and stated categorically that the date for the extradition hearing, 25 February, could not be changed. She was open to changes in dates for submission of evidence and responses before this, and called a ten minute recess for the prosecution and defense to agree these steps.

What happened next was very instructive. There were five representatives of the US government present (initially three, and two more arrived in the course of the hearing), seated at desks behind the lawyers in court. The prosecution lawyers immediately went into huddle with the US representatives, then went outside the courtroom with them, to decide how to respond on the dates.

After the recess the defense team stated they could not, in their professional opinion, adequately prepare if the hearing date were kept to February, but within Baraitser’s instruction to do so they nevertheless outlined a proposed timetable on delivery of evidence. In responding to this, Lewis’ junior counsel scurried to the back of the court to consult the Americans again while Lewis actually told the judge he was “taking instructions from those behind”. It is important to note that as he said this, it was not the UK Attorney-General’s office who were being consulted but the US Embassy. Lewis received his American instructions and agreed that the defense might have two months to prepare their evidence (they had said they needed an absolute minimum of three) but the February hearing date may not be moved. Baraitser gave a ruling agreeing everything Lewis had said.

At this stage it was unclear why we were sitting through this farce. The US government was dictating its instructions to Lewis, who was relaying those instructions to Baraitser, who was ruling them as her legal decision. The charade might as well have been cut and the US government simply sat on the bench to control the whole process. Nobody could sit there and believe they were in any part of a genuine legal process or that Baraitser was giving a moment’s consideration to the arguments of the defense. Her facial expressions on the few occasions she looked at the defense ranged from contempt through boredom to sarcasm. When she looked at Lewis she was attentive, open and warm.

The extradition is plainly being rushed through in accordance with a Washington dictated timetable. Apart from a desire to pre-empt the Spanish court providing evidence on CIA activity in sabotaging the defense, what makes the February date so important to the USA? I would welcome any thoughts.

Baraitser dismissed the defense’s request for a separate prior hearing to consider whether the extradition treaty applied at all, without bothering to give any reason why (possibly she had not properly memorized what Lewis had been instructing her to agree with). Yet this is Article 4 of the UK/US Extradition Treaty 2007 in full:

On the face of it, what Assange is accused of is the very definition of a political offense– if this is not, then what is? It is not covered by any of the exceptions from that listed. There is every reason to consider whether this charge is excluded by the extradition treaty, and to do so before the long and very costly process of considering all the evidence should the treaty apply. But Baraitser simply dismissed the argument out of hand.

Just in case anybody was left in any doubt as to what was happening here, Lewis then stood up and suggested that the defense should not be allowed to waste the court’s time with a lot of arguments. All arguments for the substantive hearing should be given in writing in advance and a “guillotine should be applied” (his exact words) to arguments and witnesses in court, perhaps of five hours for the defense. The defense had suggested they would need more than the scheduled five days to present their case. Lewis countered that the entire hearing should be over in two days. Baraitser said this was not procedurally the correct moment to agree this but she will consider it once she had received the evidence bundles.

(SPOILER: Baraitser is going to do as Lewis instructs and cut the substantive hearing short).

Baraitser then capped it all by saying the February hearing will be held, not at the comparatively open and accessible Westminster Magistrates Court where we were, but at Belmarsh Magistrates Court, the grim high security facility used for preliminary legal processing of terrorists, attached to the maximum security prison where Assange is being held. There are only six seats for the public in even the largest court at Belmarsh, and the object is plainly to evade public scrutiny and make sure that Baraitser is not exposed in public again to a genuine account of her proceedings, like this one you are reading. I will probably be unable to get in to the substantive hearing at Belmarsh.

Plainly the authorities were disconcerted by the hundreds of good people who had turned up to support Julian. They hope that far fewer will get to the much less accessible Belmarsh. I am fairly certain (and recall I had a long career as a diplomat) that the two extra American government officials who arrived halfway through proceedings were armed security personnel, brought in because of alarm at the number of protesters around a hearing in which were present senior US officials. The move to Belmarsh may be an American initiative.

Assange’s defense team objected strenuously to the move to Belmarsh, in particular on the grounds that there are no conference rooms available there to consult their client and they have very inadequate access to him in the jail. Baraitser dismissed their objection offhand and with a very definite smirk.

Finally, Baraitser turned to Julian and ordered him to stand, and asked him if he had understood the proceedings. He replied in the negative, said that he could not think, and gave every appearance of disorientation. Then he seemed to find an inner strength, drew himself up a little, and said:

I do not understand how this process is equitable. This superpower had 10 years to prepare for this case and I can’t even access my writings. It is very difficult, where I am, to do anything. These people have unlimited resources.

The effort then seemed to become too much, his voice dropped and he became increasingly confused and incoherent. He spoke of whistleblowers and publishers being labeled enemies of the people, then spoke about his children’s DNA being stolen and of being spied on in his meetings with his psychologist. I am not suggesting at all that Julian was wrong about these points, but he could not properly frame nor articulate them. He was plainly not himself, very ill and it was just horribly painful to watch. Baraitser showed neither sympathy nor the least concern. She tartly observed that if he could not understand what had happened, his lawyers could explain it to him, and she swept out of court.

The whole experience was profoundly upsetting. It was very plain that there was no genuine process of legal consideration happening here. What we had was a naked demonstration of the power of the state, and a naked dictation of proceedings by the Americans. Julian was in a box behind bulletproof glass, and I and the thirty odd other members of the public who had squeezed in were in a different box behind more bulletproof glass. I do not know if he could see me or his other friends in the court, or if he was capable of recognizing anybody. He gave no indication that he did.

In Belmarsh he is kept in complete isolation for 23 hours a day. He is permitted 45 minutes exercise. If he has to be moved, they clear the corridors before he walks down them and they lock all cell doors to ensure he has no contact with any other prisoner outside the short and strictly supervised exercise period. There is no possible justification for this inhuman regime, used on major terrorists, being imposed on a publisher who is a remand prisoner.

I have been both cataloguing and protesting for years the increasingly authoritarian powers of the UK state, but that the most gross abuse could be so open and undisguised is still a shock. The campaign of demonization and dehumanization against Julian, based on government and media lie after government and media lie, has led to a situation where he can be slowly killed in public sight, and arraigned on a charge of publishing the truth about government wrongdoing, while receiving no assistance from “liberal” society.

Unless Julian is released shortly he will be destroyed. If the state can do this, then who is next?

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster, human rights activist, and former diplomat. He was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010. The article is reprinted with permission from his website.

Hypocrisy on Syria

Crackpot Congress: The Hyper-Hypocrisy of the Syria Vote

We are through the looking glass, Alice. For years now I’ve lambasted the U.S. Congress for shirking it’s constitutionally mandated duty to actually declare and oversee America’s wars. Now, in a cruel joke of sorts, it has finally decided to do so, symbolically voting to condemn the president for pulling troops out of a Syrian war it never sanctioned in the first place. In a rare, bipartisan vote this past week, the House overwhelmingly approved H.J. Res. 77, “Opposing the decision to end certain United States efforts to prevent Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurdish forces in Northeast Syria.”

If ever proof was needed that Congress is inextricably linked to the military industrial complex and the forever warfare state, it’d have to be this bill. It demonstrates that the people’s representatives in Washington, normally asleep at the war-making wheel, will only weigh in to continue the nation’s endless wars. Their hypocrisy, it seems, knows no bounds. When a president (Obama, in this case) unilaterally sent American soldiers to combat in a new theater (Syria), Congress looked the other way. The same was true in Yemen, Libya, Iraq 3.0, and across West Africa. However, should a president (Trump) dare try end one of the plethora of endless wars, well that same Congress will assert itself in a New York minute. The lesson: true antiwar activists now know, once and for all, not to look to Capitol Hill for salvation…ever.

Nevertheless, this vote was historic and instructive, worthy of a far more detailed analysis than any mainstream media outlet has dared attempt. First of all, it passed by a landslide, 354-60. Remarkably, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted for it, proving that forever war is the only truly bipartisan issue in tribally divided Washington. Furthermore, not a single Democrat opposed the legislation, yet another demonstration of the stark reality that this is about Donald Trump, at its root, and the Dems can’t claim any sort of antiwar bonafides. Even three-quarters of the “squad” of celebrity progressive Democrats – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – voted to prolong the US military deployment in the Syrian Civil War (Rep. Ilan Omar didn’t vote), a rather abrupt about face from their normally sensible antiwar rhetoric. I suppose even they bowed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the hyper-interventionist mainstream of the Democratic Party that veritably defines itself in opposition to Trump.

In yet another baffling turnabout, all 60 of the representatives that stood by the president’s – admittedly imperfect – attempt to end an unsanctioned and thus illegal war were Republicans. Sure, they were most likely motivated by loyalty to their president, but this still illustrates that the old rules of the game, where Democrats are the, at least vaguely, antiwar party, no longer apply. One thing remains constant, however. Congress, at least since the end of the Second World War, overwhelmingly tends to roll over and support ill-advised presidential war-making, even under false pretenses.

After all, the House voted 414-0 to support President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that essentially green-lighted America’s tragic war in Vietnam. And this week, in a particularly bizarre and ahistoric analogy, Obama’s former National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that the decision to pull a handful of troops out of Northeast Syria constituted “Trump’s Saigon.” Yes, Susan, and like failed American intervention in South Vietnam, the war in Syria was from the start illegal, unsanctioned, and unwinnable. No matter, no one in the corporate media bothered to critique Rice’s absurd and uninformed assertion. That’s because she’s one of them, a polite, “respectable” Washington war hawk in the most classic sense.

Just as predictably, no one in the mainstream press, and hardly anyone in Congress, questioned the wisdom or practicality of indefinitely securing and protecting a Kurdish mini-state in Northeast Syria, or whether that was really Washington’s motive in the first place. No, crocodile tears for the Kurds was and is nothing more than a convenient tool to maintain perpetual military presence in an Arab state and bash Trump’s foreign policy. Here, too, all sense of historical context was absent. In a exasperated note this week, my former interpreter in Iraq – a holder of two relevant Master’s degrees who now drives a truck in New York City – reminded me that the US has a long history of supporting ethnic and religious minority separatism in the Arab World. As such, Uncle Sam has backed Jewish Israelis, Lebanese Christians, and now the Kurds in order to maintain a military foothold in the Mideast.

So, to truly dig into the motives and stunning cynicism of the US House of Representatives, I thought it prudent to compare the only two recent examples in which it officially – if symbolically – criticized this president’s war policies. Which brings us to Yemen, more specifically H.J. Res. 37 in February of this year, which “Directed the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.” In other words, a bill to end US support for a devastating Saudi terror war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and starved at least 85,000 children to death.

Leave aside for the moment the glaring irony that in the latest Syria vote the House called for continuing a war there that was itself, “not authorized by Congress.” The two bills provide an instructive comparison precisely because they each dealt with undeclared American wars involving the actual or ostensibly potential genocide against a minority group, the Houthis in Yemen and the Kurds in Syria.

If our representatives’ sincere motive was to halt human rights abuses or a massacre, then one would expect consistency in voting patterns. So too if the motivation was to truly end US involvement in any unsanctioned Mideast wars. Even a cursory look demonstrates, indisputably, that neither was the case. With respect to Yemen, every voting Democrat called for a halt to US support for the Saudi terror war, while all but 18 Republicans stuck with the president and backed continued intervention there.

That time the “squad” stood tall and voted as a bloc to end the war. On the other hand, more than 100 Republicans voted to continue atrocities against the Houthis but protect against potential or predicted genocide against the Kurds by maintaining a US military presence in Syria. The point is that actions speak louder than words, and the actions of most congressmen indicate not just inconsistency, but the paramountcy of partisan politics, even when it comes to matters of life and death.

Finally, let us drill down and look at one highly adulated and illustrative subgroup in the House – post 9/11 combat veterans. There are a paltry 28 such representatives currently serving in that chamber, 20 Republicans and 8 Democrats. After all, Americans love veterans, or so they say, and there’s a prominent myth that more vets in Congress would solve all the problems on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, the voting habits of this small group – particularly on Yemen and Syria – put that fantasy to rest. In reality, these congressional veterans are not only out of step with the American people, but – by overwhelmingly supporting perpetual war – not reflective of the military rank and file, two-thirds of whom believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military engagement in Syria were “not worth it.” It seems even wildly venerated congressional combat veterans are themselves rather partisan creatures.

So here we are, by the numbers: On Yemen, 19 of 20 Republicans voted to continue US support for the genocidal war (one abstained), while all eight Democrats condemned that war, and by extension President Trump. In Syria, on the other hand, 23 of 28 congressional vets backed continued US military presence in the country’s northeast, with only five Republicans sticking with the president on both counts. Democratic presidential contender, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, interestingly, did not vote.

All that esoteric analysis leads to a few rather salient conclusions. First off, combat veterans in Congress aren’t particularly antiwar by any measure. Not a single one (Tulsi came closest) voted against US war-making in both instances, i.e. a Yea vote on the Yemen resolution and a Nay vote on the Syria resolution. And 14 of 20 Republicans, even willing to break with their president on the Syria decision, supported more war in both cases. Those 14, apparently, have sympathy for Kurdish victims but not Yemeni bomb-targets – a macabre reminder that, so far as Uncle Sam is concerned, some foreigners’ lives are worth more than others. So hawkish are these Republican vets that they’ll risk continuing ceaseless war in Syria, despite polling that indicates 56% of their conservative base approves of Trump’s withdrawal.

Most disturbingly, if altogether predictably, the supposedly – and repeatedly self-touted – “apolitical” military veterans in Congress are anything but, and regularly choose party over country through their wildly inconsistent voting habits. Twelve of these folks are even nakedly so, always voting for (five Republicans) or against (7 of 8 Democrats) a person – a polarizing Donald Trump – over policy. Indeed, all the Democratic veterans besides Tulsi Gabbard are apparently only against wars that The Donald supports. Wars this president doesn’t seem to like, well, those ought to rage on and on, even if these congressmen’s former comrades-in-arms will continue to die in hopeless combat in faraway lands.

Maybe consistency is just too much to ask for from 21st century American legislators. Maybe these folks – even the “best and brightest” young combat vets – are already bought and sold by the national security power apparatus, and far too busy “dialing-for-dollars” in campaign contributions to craft dependable and prudent foreign policies for the nation they once served. If all that is true, and I fear it is, than the entire legislative branch of this republic cannot be trusted or relied upon to preserve the lives of the beloved American soldiers these veteran congressmen once commanded.

When I was a young army officer, we used to joke that once a superior was promoted to the rank of major he’d receive a mandatory “field-grade lobotomy,” and transform into a sycophantic monster. When it comes to the sacred choice to send American troopers to kill and die in nearly two decade old, unwinnable wars in the Middle East, it seems that even elected combat veterans have long since received their “congressional lobotomies…”

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen

Ritter on the Syrian Kurds

Why the Syrian Kurds Aren’t Necessarily Our Friends

As usual, Beltway hawks and the media hive have oversimplified reality to advance their agendas.

A Syrian refugee holds a banner depicting Donald Trump and a PYD fighter, during a protest against PKK/PYD organization by Syrian refugees, including Syrian Kurds, at the Syrian border next to the Syria’s Ras al-Ayn town, in Ceylanpinar District of Sanliurfa, Turkey on September 17, 2017. (Photo by Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced the commencement of “Operation Peace Spring,” a military incursion by the Turkish armed forces into northern Syria. The target of the offensive, according to Erdogan, are “terrorists” from the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is comprised of Turkish Kurds fighting for independence from Turkey, and Syrian Kurds from the YPG, or People’s Protection Units. Erdogan is also pledging to combat residual ISIS elements.

The Turkish move comes with an ostensible green light from President Trump, who cleared the way for the Turkish action by precipitously ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area.

Trump’s actions have been widely condemned as a betrayal of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, an American-trained and -equipped force of Syrian Kurds who played a lead role in the fight against ISIS in Syria, suffering thousands of casualties in the process. That Turkey, an American NATO ally, is waging war against the SDF (which the Turks label as YPG/PKK—more on that later), while at the same time targeting ISIS, the archenemy of the all these Kurdish groups, underscores the complexity of the regional politics at play in northern Syria today. Deciphering this alphabet soup goes a long way towards explaining why the Turkish actions are justified and why President Trump will ultimately be vindicated for pulling the troops out. 

Truly understanding the complex history of the Kurds in the Middle East would require several Ph.D.’s worth of research, and even then questions would remain. My own opinions are, in large part, shaped by personal experience. When I was in high school, my father was assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Mission for Aid to Turkey, or JUSMMAT. My family accompanied him, and we settled in the Turkish capital of Ankara. One of the perks of this assignment was a very active Rod and Gun club, which my father and I took full advantage of. The Ankara club had a long-standing relationship with a Kurdish tribal leader named Reshad Bey, who would organize excursions into central Anatolia where we would hunt on lands owned by Kurdish villagers.

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During one such hunt, our party (which consisted of a half-dozen Americans and a similar number of Kurds) was confronted by a platoon of Turkish Jandarma, or internal security troops. It was clear these troops had been lying in ambush for our group, and had it not been for the presence of the Americans, mischief would have followed.

That was my first experience with the difficult dynamic between Turkey and its Kurdish minority. Official Turkish policy prohibited one from calling the Kurds by their name; the Turks referred to them as “Mountain Turks” (as Americans, we did not comply with this absurdity). Moreover, the Kurds were prohibited from speaking their own language, although on the hunts, that was the way they communicated with one another. There was a discernible tension between the Kurds and the Turks, as witnessed by the presence of the Jandarma patrol. My family left Turkey in 1977, and a year later, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, was founded in eastern Turkey, precipitating a struggle for Kurdish independence from Turkey that continues to this day.

Since then, I’ve keenly followed the conflict between Turkey and the PKK. My personal interest became professional during the Gulf War, when I helped monitor Turkey’s activities in northern Iraq, the PKK having established itself there, which prompted Turkish military incursions into Iraq. I was surprised to learn that Turkey was aided in part by Iraqi Kurds opposed to the PKK.

The complexity of inter-Kurdish politics was driven home when, in 1992, I led a team of UN weapons inspectors to inspect the area around the Bekhme Dam, located some 40 miles northeast of the city of Irbil, considered to be the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. At that time, Iraqi Kurdistan had freed itself from Iraqi governmental control, and Irbil was controlled by a faction of Iraqi Kurds known as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The territory around Irbil was contested between the PUK and another Kurdish faction, the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP. These two factions did not get along.

In order to get to Bekhme Dam, my team was flown in by helicopter to a remote landing zone located in no-man’s land between the PUK and KDP, where we negotiated our transit to the site to be inspected. We were turned over to KDP Peshmerga, or fighters, who accompanied us on our drive through the Zagros mountains. Before we got to Bekhme Dam, however, our convoy was stopped at a roadblock manned by the PKK; the Bekhme Dam fell under their span of control.

Scott Ritter on the satellite phone negotiating access to Bekhme Dam in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq in August 1992. (credit: Henry Arvidsson/UNSCO)M.

There was discernible unease between our KDP escorts and the PKK fighters manning the roadblock. It turned out that it was the KDP who had been helping the Turks fight the PKK. Through some deft diplomacy on my part, my team was able to gain access to the inspection site, although the PKK was far less impressed with my being an American than they were with my U.N. credentials. By 1994, the PUK and KDP were in open war against one another, and the KDP was cooperating with Iran and Turkey to oust the PKK from Iraqi territory.

The Kurdish proclivity for infighting is a historic fact, underscoring the reality that while the Kurds dream globally, they act locally, especially when it comes to the issue of independence. The Kurds of the Middle East are spread across the region, their homeland divided by the territorial borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. My experience in Iraq underscored the reality that Kurds will turn on Kurds when it comes to protecting their regional interests. This was underscored by the experience of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, formed in northern Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

A large part of the political viability of the KRG, which represented an uncomfortable alliance between the KDP and the PUK, was dependent upon income derived from the sale of oil produced on Kurdish-controlled territory. To maximize their profits, the Kurds sold their oil to Turkey, cutting out the Iraqi government as a middleman. The Turks used this relationship as a vehicle for controlling the political appetites of the Kurds, restraining any call for independence that might resonate among them. The extent of this relationship is demonstrated by the fact that Turkey employed fighters from the KDP to help in its struggle against the PKK. Oil, however, proved to be a double-edged sword—when the KRG undertook to hold a referendum on independence in 2017, it incurred the wrath of both Turkey and the Iraqi government. The Iraqi military seized control of the Kurdish oil fields, ending the KRG’s independent source of income, and subordinating Iraqi Kurdistan to Baghdad.

If the dream of Kurdish independence was quashed in Iraq, it still lingered in Syria, where the Kurds there took advantage of the war that’s ravaged that country since 2011 to impose a regional autonomy in 2012 known as Rojava. A key element of Rojava was the creation of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as the de facto armed forces of the Kurdish political entity. While ostensibly a Syrian entity, Rojava has a parallel function as an expatriate front of the PKK, with its political arm, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, serving as little more than the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.

Turkey has expressed dissatisfaction with the creation of Rojava and the formation of the YPG, rightly recognizing that there was nothing to distinguish them from the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s anti-Rojava animus was held in check by the expansion of ISIS in 2014 and the role played by the YPG in combatting the terrorist group. The United States made common cause with the YPG in the larger war against ISIS but, recognizing Turkey’s sensitivities, had that organization rebrand itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This rebranding fooled no one. Turkey views the SDF—and rightly so—as nothing more than a front for the YPG/PKK.

The American embrace of the SDF was always a temporary solution to the problem of ISIS. The United States never has supported a greater Kurdish nation. And while there’s been much lip service to the idea of using the SDF as a vehicle to destabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad, regime change has never been seriously pursued by the United States in Syria. Today there is widespread recognition that, following the intervention of Russia in 2015, Assad is here to stay.

Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from the Syrian border zone makes perfect sense: it avoids a damaging conflict with Turkey, a strategic NATO ally, and sidesteps a potential major power confrontation with Russia. This was always in the cards, since the United States was never a guarantor of the Syrian Kurds’ objective of autonomy. But the precipitous way that the American redeployment was announced, and the fact that it was done void of any coordination with either the Kurds or other U.S. regional allies, sets the stage for more geopolitical chaos in a region already wracked by conflict.