The US knew that Turkey was backing groups that would commit abuses against areas previously held by the US-backed SDF in eastern Syria, a US official wrote. There was also ethnic cleansing. William Roebuck, who spent time on the ground in eastern Syria, sent a memo. It was obtained by the New York Times.
Here are key passages.
Title: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria and De-Stabilize our D-ISIS Platform in the Northeast
He begins by noting that “Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing, relying on widespread military conflict targeting part the Kurdish heartland along the border and benefiting from several widely publicized, fear-inducing atrocities these forces committed. Our military forces and diplomats were on the ground in the northeast at the time. The Turkey operation damaged our regional and international credibility and has significantly destabilized northeastern Syria.”
His summary notes:
“It also continues to place Kurdish society in northeastern Syria — as a people on ancestral lands — in serious jeopardy. We should insist Turkey bear all the diplomatic and reputational costs for this venture and seek to prevent President Erdogan from flooding this de-populated zone with Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey. Our diplomacy will also need to recognize we — with our local partners — have lost significant leverage and inherited a shrunken, less stable platform to support both our CT efforts and the mission of finding a comprehensive political solution for Syria.”
He goes on to note that this isn’t just about US interests and oil: “Overlooked in the current context is an additional factor which has great potential for negative impact in damage to U.S. credibility: what can only be described as war crimes and ethnic cleansing. As more news emerges from northeast Syria of Turkish/Turkish supported groups/organizations (TSO) atrocities and expulsion of citizens, the reputational risks to the US and criticism of our decisions will rise. To protect our interests, we need to speak out more forcefully, publicly and privately, to reduce the blame placed on the US and to highlight the Turkish responsibilities for civilian wellbeing.”
Roeback was the lone US diplomat on the ground in the last weeks and one of the few in the last years. “I met regularly with SDF Commander General Mazloum and his lieutenants, as his forces cooperated with our Special Operations Forces against ISIS, as we took down their so-called Caliphate…I spoke with Mazloum just after the killing of Baghdadi this week, when he described the critical role SDF intelligence and planning played in the operation.”
Roebuck notes that the SDF commander sought “regular outreach to Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Deir a-Zour and Raqqa to maintain their support for the SDF and address their grievances. Strategic in his thinking, optimistic, and strong believer in the importance of the relationship with the United States, Mazloum never failed to impress visiting military officers, senior officials, and regional experts with his pragmatism and pronounced willingness to work with the U.S.”
The uS worked with local councils and sought outreach to Arab areas. “The SDF/SDC had organized security and local governance throughout the northeast and this chunk of Syria representing close to a third of the country’s total area, was secure and peaceful for the most part.”
He said that the SDF was not that representative and neither was the ruling PYD. “It wasn’t a bad start. Kurds understood clearly they held more territory than their demographic and historic presence would normally suggest, but it was viewed as an important bargaining chip for them — and us.”
The US diplomat mentions Turkey’s security concerns. “And yet that border stayed quiet on the Syrian side the entire time — over 20 months — I have been in Syria, until Turkey violated it with its October Peace Spring military operation. When quietly called on this discrepancy, a senior U.S. official explained to me, ‘well, it’s a perceived threat (because of ideological and other affiliations between the PYD and the PKK) that Turkey feels, so we have to take it seriously.’ But eventually the talking point became reality. We began speaking as if there really were attacks across the border into Turkey, causing real casualties and damage. But these were chimerical — strongly felt perhaps — but palpable only as fears and concerns, not on the ground.”
There was no security threat. The US however began to view it through Turkey’s eyes.
Roebuck stressed that the SDF lost 10,000 fatalities in the war and 20,000 wounded. “We asked these people to take on this fight. It was our fight, and Europe’s, and all of the international community’s. And yes, it was Syria’s Kurds’ fight too. They had fought ISIS to a standstill in Kobane and with our help back in 2014-2015, repulsed them. But we asked them to fight for us, for the international community, to put almost exclusively on their shoulders this burden of taking down what remained of the Caliphate. For their own reasons and calculations, they did so. One could argue that in a transactional sense, we owe them nothing. We looked after our interests and they made their own calculations.”
In short, the US got them to do the dying. But then the US walked away from them. He says we need to be honest. “They are a relatively small, largely local non-state actor. In some ways we, seeking a local partner to fight ISIS with us, may have inadvertently put a target on their back that did not exist before we came on the scene. At that time, while Turkey might have looked upon the PYD and its YPG militia as affiliated PKK organizations, it did not view them as an existential threat, the way Turkey has increasingly viewed them since they partnered with us. In 2015 senior PYD officials like Saleh Muslim and Elham Ahmed visited Turkey, meeting with senior GOT officials. They were not labeled terrorists or subjected to the language of extermination or other harsh rhetoric. But our military partnership with the SDF, never accepted by Turkey, over time seriously riled the Turks and seems to have caused them to see the YPG militia, the backbone of the SDF, together with the PYD political party, as an existential threat.”
The US also sidelines the SDF from Geneva and the US seems to have fanned the flames of the offensive Turkey launched. It didn’t work to stop it but made it worse. He says Erdogan worked with the “far-right” and demonized Syria’s Kurds. He says a “tragedy” resulted. Ethnic cleansing
“One day when the diplomatic history is written, people will wonder what happened here and why officials didn’t do more to stop it or at least speak out more forcefully to blame Turkey for its behavior: an unprovoked military operation that has killed some 200 civilians, left well over 100,000 people (and counting) newly displaced and homeless because of its military operation targeting Tel Abyad and Ras Ayn, but also Kobane, and Ayn Isa, and dozens of Kurdish villages surrounding each of these towns.”
Roebuck says that Turkish supported groups involved in the offensive, called TSO, “some of whom formerly allied with ISIS or al-Qaida — Turkey has emptied or is emptying major Kurdish population centers and Turkish officials — led by President Erdogan speaking at UNGA in September — broadcast their intention to fill these emptied areas with Syrian Arab refugees currently in Turkey. This de-populating of Kurdish areas benefited from several well-publicized, fear-inducing atrocities the TSO committed in the early days of the military operation that accelerated civilian flight.”
And here is the main point: “Let’s be clear: this is intentioned-laced ethnic cleansing; it is a war crime, when proven. The US government should be much more forceful in calling Turkey out for this behavior. We should also make much clearer to Turkey, in public and private statements and with the leverage we have at our disposal, that the people run out of their homes must be able to safely return.”
However the US has not done that, instead seeking to ignore those people and seeking to work with Turkey. People don’t matter in US diplomacy these days.
Roebuck says “The TSO gangs must be withdrawn.”
Did the US promise the Kurds that Washington would protect them. “When the attack on Afrin occurred last winter, we told people, based on Washington’s guidance to reassure our partners ‘We can’t do anything about Afrin (which Turkey and its jihadi mercenaries attacked last year, dispossessing 170,000 people) because we aren’t there; no troops or air power. But we are here in the northeast. We are your close partner. Afrin can’t happen here.'” The US clearly misled the SDF on this. It asked them to sacrifice Afrin, not work with the Syrian regime, not take part in Geneva, and then fueled Turkey’s attack and the cleansing of the Kurdish minority. And the US got 10,000 of the SDF to die.
Roebuck says that the US stood by and watched. He says that it is incumbent to speak out. “Place the blame for abuses where it lies and avoid risking damage to US credibility and reputation.”
Roebuck has a warning about the extremist groups also. He admits the US read “their blood-curdling threats on social media against Kurds, and absorbed the publicly stated intention of Turkish officials to flood the area with Syrian Arab refugees…the clearing of widespread settled areas of an ethnic group and replacing it with another— partly implemented, partly still in the planning stages, must be placed on Turkey’s doorstep.”
The international community is just “sputtering ineffectually.” Eastern Syria’s catastrophe is part of the larger Syrian tragedy, he says. He says the US successfully got Turkey not to attack in December of 2018. He says Turkey cannot be stopped, as a NATO member it can do whatever it wants. NATO is now a stamp for impunity. “Turkey’s NATO get-out-of-jail-free card.”
But Roebuck says the US didn’t even “didn’t try” to stop the operation.
What now? “Subsequent Russia-Turkey Sochi Agreement muddies any clarity to the situation on the ground; in tandem with Turkey’s Peace Spring operation and the SDF’s piecemeal deals to bring in Syrian regime and Russian forces in specific locations, the northeast has become a much less stable (and much smaller) platform for our D-ISIS mission.”
The SDF is now “living on borrowed time; what makes that potentially tragic is the sleight-of-hand Turkey has achieved, visiting its military solution not just on the SDF…but on the innocent Kurdish population that lived in hundreds of villages in this northern area — along with Muslim and Christian Arabs — common people who live, farm, keep shops, and go to school in this border area.”
Because Turkey’s agenda was to get rid of the SDF and US-SDF relationship and the US as well. He says “Turkey should absorb the full brunt of international opprobrium for the ethnic cleansing it has perpetrated and demographic change it is yet threatening to do. At every turn we should make clear, Turkey and its leadership will be on their own in trying to justify these actions.”
But Turkey doesn’t care.
The US has a few cards to play as it withdraws. “In addition to holding the oil fields, with the SDF, we hold other cards we can play, including the timing of our exit from the northeast and unblocking regional normalization and reconstruction funds at the appropriate time.” Now also the US will acknowledge that “the road to finding a solution in Syria probably leads through Moscow, at least in the first instance, rather than the UN.” The US has devalued its own leverage, he writes. “Our once dominant SDF partners, that it is doubtful that road is open anymore, in any real sense. We can keep slogging on, and we probably will, letting the constitutional committee dynamics play out.”
Turkey might be leaving or abandoning the Syrian rebels as well. “Including the SDF, Moscow, Ankara, and possibly even Damascus, to outline exactly how the northeast will be reintegrated into the Syrian state. Turkey, despite being the last remaining supporter of the Syrian opposition, is no doubt, already having these same conversations with Moscow and Damascus in order to resolve the Syrian conflict in its favor.”