Pence Just Ratified All of Turkey’s War Aims in Syria

Spencer Ackerman
via REUTERS

Last month, at the United Nations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan waved a map of northeastern Syria before the world’s dignitaries. His point was to demand U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, whom Washington had relied upon to fight the so-called Islamic State, get out. His subtext was that he was ready to violently extend the Turkish border southward, seizing Syrian territory. 

In Ankara on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence gave Erdoğan everything the Turks wanted in the long-telegraphed war Erdoğan launched following a green light from President Donald Trump during a now-infamous Oct. 6 phone call. The U.S. did not even get the status quo ante. 

The Turks did not agree to withdraw from Syrian territory. They agreed to a ceasefire, Pence announced. Over the next five days, the Kurdish forces that the U.S. abandoned are to withdraw approximately 20 miles south. In exchange, the Trump administration agreed not to implement new sanctions—Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen introduced a new sanctions package as Pence briefed reporters—and, should the Turkish ceasefire hold, will lift those the administration placed on Turkey after Trump’s greenlight drew widespread backlash. 

“It’s a ratification of what Donald Trump told the Turks they could do,” assessed Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

A Turkish official told Middle East Eye, “We got exactly what we wanted out of the meeting.” Erdoğan’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, even boasted that Turkey had agreed to do no more than “pause” its war for the five agreed-upon days. “We will only stop the operation if our conditions are met,” Cavusoglu said.

Pence said he and the other members of the high-level U.S. delegation in Ankara, which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new national security adviser Robert O’Brien, had a brief to deliver no more than a ceasefire. “This will serve the interests of the Kurdish population in Syria,” Pence insisted, crediting the agreement to “President Trump and President Erdoğan.” 

In Stein’s view, it’s more like an agreement between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. After Trump ordered U.S. forces back from the Turkish front, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reached a modus vivendi with the Russian-backed government of Bashar Assad that brought Syrian government fighters back into the area for the first time in about seven years. All these new facts on the ground–the Turks in, the Syrian government in, the Americans back–ensured Turkey would wind its operation down. 

Erdoğan and Putin have agreed to meet in Sochi on Oct. 22. “As soon as that date was reached,” Stein said, “this thing was over.”

Faced with apparently unexpected anger over the abandonment of a U.S. partner in exchange for nothing, the Trump administration has spent the past week insisting against publicly available and observable information that it had opposed the Turkish invasion all along. 

A senior State Department insisted last week that Trump had given Erdoğan a “red light,” despite the White House announcing Turkey’s invasion in a statement that expressed no opposition and Trump’s subsequent invitation of Erdoğan to the White House in an Oct. 8 tweet. For days afterward, senior officials demanded Turkey end the war, only to be rebuffed. Turkish forces even fired on American-held positions that Pentagon officials had earlier declared Turkey knew about. 

Through it all, Trump falsely insisted that the approximately 1,000 U.S. servicemembers in Syria had withdrawn entirely. In truth, he ordered several hundred of those troops elsewhere in the Mideast, despite claiming to deplore the foolishness of America’s endless military foray there, where he has sent 14,000 new troops to threaten Iran.

As of now, hundreds of remaining U.S. troops are pulling back to the garrison at at-Tanf, which they hold for an entirely separate and undeclared mission, preferred by former national security adviser John Bolton, of pressing Iran and its Syrian proxies. The surveillance assets the U.S. had tasked with watching a resurgence of ISIS fighters, many of whom escaped prisons the SDF could no longer prioritize amidst Turkish fire, have gone instead to protecting a U.S. retreat

“You expect at some point to come out, but somehow at-Tanf manages to stick. It’s the herpes of the American presence in Syria,” observed Stein. 

Accordingly, the U.S. has not even extricated itself from a war that Congress never approved back in 2014. It has pulled back but not out, permitting its partners to be killed, all after a year during which it actively discouraged the Kurds from making contingencies for a post-U.S. Syria. An ISIS revival is now a live possibility, but this time without an American partner permitting the “by, with and through” strategy that allowed Washington to wage war indirectly. Should ISIS return in force, it will test the American political system not to re-invade. 

Stein noted that the U.S. no longer has leverage over the SDF to get its leadership to honor the deal Pence struck with Erdoğan. Nor do the Turks and Americans agree on the basic definition of who is an SDF fighter and who belongs to the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish terrorist group against which Erdoğan predicated his invasion. Syrian forces are likely to keep fighting Turkish forces and proxies. The multiplicity of wars in Syria, in other words, are likely to continue, ceasefire or no. 

“Turkey set the tempo, they always set the tempo. It created facts on the ground and Donald Trump was an enabler of that,” Stein said. “The U.S. just caught up to its own president. Is it a win for Turkey? Yes, I guess, but they’re winning hostile territory in a broken state.”

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