On the Syrian Decision

Brad Patty

15 days ago

October 07, 2019

President Trump announced, again, a US withdrawal from positions in northern Syria. This has been a longstanding goal of his, hotly opposed by almost everyone in the American foreign policy community and political establishment. The Security Studies Group (SSG) authored a plan due to a request received nearly two years ago aimed at a withdrawal in line with the President’s intended policy, without exposing our allies — especially the Kurds — to a destructive power vacuum. It was always clear that Turkey would fill that vacuum, and that the Kurds would suffer as a consequence.

As we warned at the time, the American position was much more exposed and much less tenable than was commonly understood. The Turks, should they choose to press the issue, were in a much more powerful position unless the American military reinforced itself substantially.

The United States military currently deploys about two thousand personnel in an advisory role. Force protection for these elements is provided especially by air and fire support. Such support recently allowed a small contingent of American forces to wipe out a large Russian mercenary element. Nevertheless, the strength of the position should not be overestimated.

American personnel are spread out and isolated from one another in many places. They are advising, and are thus co-located with, irregular forces that could not have themselves withstood the Russian mercenaries. The Turkish military, which is likely to aim at America’s Kurdish allies, is far more powerful and has integrated air support, fire support, and the capacity to contest control of the air with fighters and anti-aircraft defenses….

It may be that the Turkish military can be convinced to accept an American plan that does not bring them into conflict with the Kurdish units we are supporting, but at this time there is no guarantee of that….The Trump administration must choose between withdrawing from an untenable position, or reinforcing that position so that it becomes tenable. Otherwise, the deployed American forces are at risk of becoming hostages to the enemy at best. At worst, they are at risk of being destroyed.

The Turks have been threatening an invasion for some time. In January of 2018 they began shelling our allies, and threatening to expand their incursion in Arfin into a general invasion. A year ago it appeared that the Turkish government had finally decided on an invasion, which indicated that American forces would have to withdraw. Diplomatic pressures, particularly leverage around the proposed F-35 sale to Turkey, allowed American policymakers to put the brakes on for a while. However, President Erdogan of Turkey decided to bite the bullet on the F-35, the transfer of which was denied to him over his purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. That removed a key lever from our negotiating position.

Nor can we use NATO as leverage against Turkey: because all NATO decisions must be taken unanimously, Turkey can use its membership in NATO as leverage against us. Turkey can, if it decides to do so, veto any or every NATO initiative. It can effectively end the alliance as a functional organization. Thus, it can use its vote to bid for American accession to Turkish interests — or sell its ability to veto formal action by NATO to both Russia and China.

This realignment of Turkey with China needs more attention than it has gotten by American thinkers. SSG recognizes that the Trump administration desires to restore Turkey as a functional NATO ally, but that is made much more difficult given Erdogan’s ambitions and increased alignment with Chinese interests. Erdogan, with the full cooperation of China’s Xi Jinping, is planning to tie Turkey into the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ project that China hopes will extend its spheres of control and of influence across Asia and into Europe. Turkey still has a conflicting interest with Russia over control over the Bosporus strait, which could be leveraged by American negotiators. The scale of China’s proposed investments, and the wealth transfers they would enable, nevertheless makes China’s offer a powerful incentive:  and China is only too happy to allow Erdogan to attain his regional ambitions of restoring the Turkish dominance over as much of the fractious region as he can control. The Kurds mean nothing to China, nor do principles of self-determination or liberty. It will be hard for American negotiators to compete with this offer of both great wealth and regionally unfettered power.

That said, while Turkey cannot be stopped by anyone currently present on the ground from seizing as much of northern Syria as it wants, it is almost certain that Turkey will provoke a long and bloody insurgency. China may find its hopes to create a wealth corridor through this part of Asia hampered, and may even come to be an occasional target of such an insurgency. If all this instability raises the price of oil, well, the United States is now a net exporter of oil. SSG was recently exploring the effect of that on China as regards Iran’s similar expansionism.

…the instability in oil supplies from the Middle East is a much bigger problem for China than for America. Iran’s moves here are creating big problems for China. For the United States, the rise in energy prices is matched by a fracking-rich energy strategy that makes those higher prices a net positive for us. Thus, Iran’s moves redouble the leverage that the Trump administration was already wielding against China’s economy….

the shipping of oil [to China] from these Iranian/Iraqi oil fields requires shipment through the very Strait of Hormuz that the current conflict threatens to close. The United States does not need to win such a conflict to do crippling damage to China’s economy. It needs only to allow Iran to close the strait, and then prolong the conflict in such a way as to keep the strait close to oil tankers. While this would cause massive economic chaos in Europe and for China, as well as for America’s Asian allies, the United States itself would profit as we transition into a net energy exporter, as we have already become a net oil exporter.

Just as allowing Iran to run wild hurts China much more than it hurts the United States, China is harmed by our allowing the Turks to provoke an insurgency that will bedevil the stability of the very region where China intends its massive investments. The wars that China’s own allies are starting are going to be the biggest tax on China’s growing power and influence, which means it will become China’s problem — and not America’s — to stop those wars. That means that China and Turkey, and not America, will end up paying the cost of Middle Eastern security. The danger they face is that they will overextend themselves, and provoke fights they cannot walk away from in the process. It may be a bigger burden than Erdogan or Xi imagine that they are taking on here.

It is unlikely that President Trump thinks so strategically or so ruthlessly. More likely he is simply convinced that these wars drain American blood and treasure in an unacceptable way, and he just intends to stop doing it whatever it costs. If the foreign policy community, the establishment or the Senate does not dissuade him, Trump will end America’s participation in this war to save American blood and American treasure. American planners who do think strategically (and hopefully also ruthlessly) need to begin to focus on how to support and protect America’s friends as they turn from fighting the Islamic State to fighting Turkish and Chinese oppression. In addition to being the right thing to do, support to those friends is where our largest strategic gains are to be found.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.