Within hours U.S. military personnel stationed in the border towns of Tal Abiad and Ras al-Ain withdrew from their positions. Turkish troops soon moved into those areas. On Monday Turkish media published photos showing members of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army—a collection of Syrian and other jihadist mercenaries—preparing to fight Kurds and non-Muslims. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu issued a statement saying his country would “clear the region from terrorists.”
As early clashes between SDF and Turkish troops left six SDF soldiers dead and 15 wounded, Washington was in turmoil over Trump’s decision, with even stalwart supporters condemning it.
Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Twitter, “This decision to abandon our Kurdish allies and turn Syria over to Russia, Iran, & Turkey will put every radical Islamist on steroids.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also condemned the move, along with others off Capitol Hill.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a statement calling for a halt to Turkish airstrikes. Civilians “who represent a diverse group of religious and ethnic communities, are now at dangerous risk of falling victim to violent chaos,” said chairman Tony Perkins.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, “We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command with charge of all U.S. forces in the region until he stepped down in March, called Trump’s move a “green light” for Turkey that “threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS.”
Votel echoed other concerns of military and diplomatic experts, saying it “will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies.”
Trump compounded that perception in statements that have followed, calling a Turkish offensive “a bad idea” and threatening to “obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it steps out of bounds. But the withdrawal taps a populist nerve, as many Americans believe ending U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is past due.
“The concept that we have too many troops, too many soldiers, too much of a presence in the world is a perfectly defendable one and one that I think many Americans share,” said Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. diplomat who is president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. “But the reality is our presence on the ground in Syria with the SDF, with the YPG allies, Kurdish and non-Kurdish fighters, was a force for good. It prevented our adversaries from gaining that territory. It protected religious minorities, including Syrian Christians in that area.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces have merged militias from Kurds, Syriac Christians, and Arabs, led by the Kurdish YPG fighters. As the YPG fought ISIS in 2014 to prevent the takeover of Kobani, Turkey refused to allow U.S. jets to use the U.S. airbase at Incirlik in Turkey in support of their effort. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group responsible for terror attacks inside Turkey.
With an ISIS victory in Kobani imminent, President Barack Obama bypassed Turkey, dropping weapons and key supplies to the Kurds in Kobani, and later provided air cover in the fight. The YPG and later SDF proved successful at routing ISIS across northern Syria, including the Christian villages held by ISIS along the Khabur River, and in Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS “caliphate.”
In all, the SDF has lost 11,000 fighters in these combat operations.
On Oct. 8 Genocide Watch renewed a 2018 genocide warning for northeast Syria, saying, “Kurds, Christians, and Yezidis in Northeast Syria are at grave risk of genocide by the armies of Turkey and Syria.”
The Syriac Union Party, an opposition party led by Christians from the north’s Hasakah region, released a statement condemning Turkish attacks, and warning that the existence of Syriac Christians and other Christian communities in northeast Syria is now in danger.