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Grave effects of Trump abandoning Kurdish allies evolving at bewildering speed

Events in Syria appear to represent a major setback for the US and a major victory for Syria’s President Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

TURKEY’S SO-CALLED Operation Peace Spring was launched one week ago today on 9 October. From a military planning and logistics perspective, Turkey’s advance into north-eastern Syria has been rapid and decisive. In fact, the operation bears the hallmark of extensive preparation and pre-deployment of troops, artillery and armoured assets across a wide front.

Turkey’s stated aim is to create a ‘Safe Zone’, 32 kilometres deep into Syrian territory along a 480 kilometre portion of Turkey’s border.

This would represent an area of approximately 15,000 square kilometres from the contested town of Kobani, east towards Qamishli and beyond to the junction of the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi borders.

Even if President Erdogan’s advance is halted through sanctions and diplomatic pressure in the coming days, according to reports of Turkish advances, he will already have secured a narrow swathe of Syrian territory twice the size of the Gaza Strip – an area that contains almost two million Palestinians in desperate conditions.

turkish-army-forces-arrive-at-manbij-border Turkish forces arriving in northern Syria. Source: DHA/ABACA

The fear is that Erdogan will attempt to forcibly repatriate up to two million Syrian Sunni Arab refugees from Turkey into this so-called ‘Safe Zone’. Were this to happen, it would create an artificial buffer area designed to thwart an autonomous Kurdish presence on Turkey’s border by means of ethnic displacement.

‘Operation Inherent Resolve’

This dramatic incursion took place within 72 hours of President Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the area.

America’s ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’, designed to defeat Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria was launched in September 2014 with the help of their Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) amongst others.

After five years of bitter fighting, alongside their male and notably female Kurdish allies, President Trump abandoned his military allies on the battlefield in one overnight withdrawal. Literally overnight. The grave military and political effects of Trump’s decision are evolving with bewildering speed and with growing regional and international consequences.

Whilst the speed of Turkey’s intervention has been most notable – with a level of foresight, preparation and confidence implying some foreknowledge of President Trump’s decision – President Assad’s military response to the incursion has been even more rapid.

In an extraordinary development, within hours of America’s withdrawal from the battlefield, her abandoned allies, the SDF have entered into a military alliance with their former sworn enemy, Assad’s Syrian Army. This deal was brokered by Russia, with President Putin, as Assad’s principal backer in the region restoring almost one-third of Syria’s territory to the Damascus Regime.

turkey-syria Smoke and dust billows from targets in Ras al-Ayn, Syria. Source: Lefteris Pitarakis

Assad’s troops, driven out of North Eastern Syria in 2012 at the beginning of the Civil War, have not had control of this area, east of the Euphrates for seven years. Within 48 hours of striking a deal with America’s abandoned allies, Assad’s troops have regained a heavily armed presence on the ground throughout the provinces of Hasakah and Raqqa.

This is a decisive moment in Syria’s civil war. With Russia’s support – and President Trump’s decision to withdraw – President Assad has now regained armed control of almost all of Syria’s territory.

Syrian troops along with Russian ‘advisors’ are now reported to be present in towns and villages along the Turkish axis of advance from Manbij, Ain Issa and Tel Tamr. News reports have shown footage of Syrian Armoured units and heavy artillery assets flooding into the area on low loaders and other transport systems.

Given the lightning speed at which President Assad’s forces have moved north and east – from a military perspective, his forces rate of advance speaks loudly of prior knowledge of a shift in power in the region.

Incredible footage is being shared online of US armoured convoys, withdrawing from the region, passing by truckloads of Assad’s troops as they share the same dusty Syrian highways. The fact that there has been no exchange of fire between these formations suggests that the US and Russians have coordinated their respective withdrawals and advances as part of their ‘de-confliction’ process.

Russia is now reportedly anxious to negotiate a deal between the Turkish military and the Syrian Army – presumably an agreed carve-up of what remains of north-eastern Syria and the autonomous Kurdish zones there. It is a tragic day for Syria’s opposition to Assad’s regime. At this point, he appears to have triumphed in his stated aspiration to regain ‘every inch’ of Syrian territory.

Winners and losers

As I write, in military, diplomatic and political terms, events in Syria over the last week represent a major victory for President Putin, President Assad and their Iranian allies in the region.

syria-turkey Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters. Source: AP/PA Images

Events as they unfold appear to represent a major setback for President Trump and the United States. As US forces withdraw to their base in Al Tanf on the border with Iraq, they appear to have run out of military options for Syria. According to news reports and statements by the US military themselves, events have moved so rapidly that they were unable to detain or remove what remained of Islamic State’s most senior leadership along with thousands of jihadis and foreign fighters that had been imprisoned by their former allies, the Kurdish SDF.

These Islamic State jihadis, along with hundreds of foreign fighters and family members are now desperately fleeing the area. The foreign fighters – from all over Europe – have been ordered to return to Europe and ‘continue the armed fight’ against the west.

The fear within EU security circles is that these IS escapees may return to their home countries with a resurgence, once more, in Islamist violence in Europe’s capitals in the coming year. Were this to happen, it would be another tragic outcome of the precipitous withdrawal of US forces in the region.

Lisa Smith

Amongst those Islamic State fighters and dependants fleeing the area are Lisa Smith and her daughter. If she falls into the hands of Assad troops she faces an uncertain fate. She is also potentially at risk from other IS escapees who may view her as disloyal to the caliphate.

Any attempt on her part to reach Turkish territory would likely entail moving through the front lines of Turkey’s incursion into the area. Her situation is fraught. If she were to be repatriated to Ireland however, she would be in a position to provide the Irish authorities with very valuable intelligence as we adjust to the prospect of a possible resurgence in Islamic State violence in Europe.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT.

You can follow him on Twitter here.     

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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