Steven A. Cook and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon discuss the U.S. decision to withdraw from northeastern Syria and the Turkish response, including implications for the United States’ Kurdish allies in Syria and the future of the Islamic State.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations conference call. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s discussion is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be posted on the CFR website. Joining us on the call are CFR members, corporate contacts, congressional staffers, religious institutions, and members of the press. So welcome, all.
Today, to lead the discussion on the U.S. decision to withdraw from northeastern Syria and the Turkish response, are Steven Cook and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.
Dr. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at CFR and serves as the director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars. An expert on Arab and Turkish politics and U.S. Middle East policy, Dr. Cook is the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR and the chief marketing officer of Shield AI. She is a contributor to the Atlantic’s Defense One site, writing on national security and foreign policy issues. She is the author of two books, Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, both of which are New York Times bestsellers.
Steven and Gayle, thank you very much for joining us today. As we all know, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria after a conversation with Turkey President Erdoğan. Turkey began its incursion into Syria yesterday. So, Steven, let’s turn first to you to talk about Turkey’s primary objectives.
COOK: Well, thanks very much, Irina, and thanks to Gayle. It’s a great pleasure to be on the call with her. And thanks to all of you who have taken your time out of the afternoon—out of your afternoon to join us on the call.
I think that President Erdoğan’s objectives in this incursion that the Turks are calling Operation Peace Spring are really two, and they are driven primary by President Erdoğan’s domestic politics.
The first is Turkey is host to more than three million Syrian refugees. And as the Turkish economy has faltered, they have become very, very unpopular. And President Erdoğan has been under pressure to do something about the large number of Syrian refugees in the country, and they have begun to talk about and now implement a policy of returning Syrians back to their home country. And one of the objectives of this military incursion is to carve out enough territory so that they can return large numbers of these refugees. Now, it’s not just a domestic political issue, but it is driven by that issue for President Erdoğan, who I should remind folks on the call is relatively politically weak right now, certainly in comparison to his previous years in his long tenure.
The second major objective of Turkey is to go after and do its best to destroy what’s called the People’s Protection Units. It goes by the acronym YPG. This is the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have aligned with the United States in order to fight the Islamic State and have been effective on the ground in fighting the Islamic State. And Gayle can give you a lot more detail about what they’ve done in terms of governance in northern Syria, but have established a kind of effective civilian government in the places in which they control. The problem is, is that the Turkish government regards the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, as inextricably linked with a Turkish Kurdish group called the Kurdistan Workers Party—known by its acronym, PKK—and the PKK has been waging a terrorist campaign against Turkey since the mid-1980s. That conflict has waxed and waned, it has waxed and waned, and the Turks have been outraged by the American relationship with the YPG/PKK, and Erdoğan has come under significant pressure at home to finally do something about it.
In a phone call over this past weekend, he apparently convinced President Trump that the Islamic State had been defeated, and thus there was really no reason for the United States to remain in northeastern Syria, and that it no longer needed a security relationship with the YPG. This played to the president’s inclination about bringing Americans—bringing Americans home and disentangling from the—the United States from local conflicts. And once the United States said it was redeploying away from the border and ending its security relationship with the YPG, the Turks have now, as we’ve all seen, undertaken this incursion.
Now, I don’t want to downplay the sense of Turkish threat from the PKK and the YPG. That certainly is something that Turks are quite concerned about. There have been terrorist attacks undertaken mostly by the PKK. But the Turks really make no distinction between the PKK and the YPG.
So that’s essentially what the Turks are up to in northern Syria. Before handing it back to you, Irina, just one more point.
This is enormously risky for the Turks. They are now—their goal is push about twenty miles into northern Syria. There’s no way that the YPG can challenge the Turkish armed forces head on, so the likelihood is that the YPG will undertake a kind of guerilla warfare against the Turkish armed forces. This raises the prospect that Turkey will get caught in Syria. It’s very easy to commit forces someplace; it’s much harder to get them out. And the Turks have been battling the PKK, as I said, on and off since the mid-1980s, and they could find themselves in a protracted conflict in Syria. There are any number of regional examples of countries committing their military forces in search of greater security and then finding that they have undermined their own security. Look no further than what the Saudis have done in Yemen.
FASKIANOS: Steven, thanks very much.
Let’s turn now to Gayle. You have made six trips to Syria over the past two years. What are the ramifications of the U.S. withdrawal for U.S. national security and the fight against the Islamic State going forward, especially vis-à-vis the Syrian Christian community?
LEMMON: It’s really a pleasure for me to be on this call today. I was looking at the roster. I know a number of you. I’m always delighted to hear what Steven has to say. And Irina, thank you for having (me ?).
It’s a very serious moment. And it’s a serious moment—I want to highlight three reasons.
First of all, this is the most effective partner the United States has had in the post-9/11 conflicts when you think about the perspective of U.S. Special Operations forces and the U.S. military writ more broadly. I spent the past two years going back and forth to northeastern Syria and writing a book that I thought would have a rather different ending which was about what ISIS had left in its wake, which is the world’s most far-reaching experiment in women’s equality in the least likely place in the world, brought to you by women who had spent the last four, now five years battling ISIS and were building this experiment in what the world would look like if women had equal access to rights upon the ashes of the ISIS fight. And that’s a book I have recently turned in. (Laughter.) Needless to say, the epilogue is being revisited now.
And in the process of this I went back and looked at 2014 and how did we reach this moment. And that is why I say this is a very serious moment, because when you speak with the folks who were part of this in 2014, on the U.S. side they will say that this was the only option the U.S. had for defeating ISIS on the ground, because the United States was not going to put troops in harm’s way, very understandably, and they needed folks who would stand their ground against the Islamic State and even when they were surrounded not stop fighting. That happened to be this obscure group of Syrian Kurds no one had ever heard of and who were seen by Turkey, for understandable reasons, as connected to the PKK, and then thus by association terrorists. The United States went through the entire exercise of figuring out who did they work with, these people; were they terrorists; you know how did they answer these questions; and found that if they were going to hand the Islamic State its first defeat—this is in 2014 in Kobani—it would have to—it would partner from the air with these folks who were standing their ground on the battlefield against Kobani, even while dreadfully overmatched by the Islamic State.
And four years later, as I was talking to folks and had really been digging into how this all came to be, what you find is that this was a by, with, and through that worked. I deeply love Afghanistan, but time in all of the places in which there were the post-9/11 conflicts have taken place, and I can honestly say that this is nearly alone in being a story of one-directional progress towards a very fragile and endangered, but very real stability that you felt on the ground and that you saw every day. And whether that was in the Christian community, where I interviewed young women who had been battling ISIS for the past four years when I was there this past May; or whether that was in the Arab community, where you talk to young women who were joining the all-women force; to especially young women who had survived life under ISIS and that brutality; and then of course to the Kurds, who had been the ones who brought this ideology and have been part of this force. So that’s the first part of it.
And then the second part is that if you look at the by, with, and through, you have this situation where you have close to eleven thousand of these Syrian Democratic Forces who are now facing the Turkish incursion who have died in the ISIS fight. And while every Gold Star family is a tragedy, and I—and I deeply feel that, and have spent years very deeply connected to many and one in particular from Ashley’s War, there were fewer than five U.S. combat deaths to take back the entirety of the Syrian territory that the Islamic State held.
And so then that brings me just to my last point, which is that this is not about sentimentality; it’s about national security, because these were the folks who fought ISIS and who had been until Sunday holding the families and trying to figure out what to do with the sixty thousand ISIS family members—wives and children—who no one else wanted to take in, and what to do with the thousands of Islamic State fighters that their own countries did not want to take back. So this is a partner force that has done what the U.S. had asked at every turn.
And I will close my final by just saying that—my opening comments by saying I deeply believe there is a deal to be had here where Turkish security concerns can be addressed, as they were starting to be addressed until as late as Sunday by the security mechanism the United States has worked with its NATO ally Turkey very closely to develop, and by—with the United States and an international force that the U.S. had already begun planning for, so that little people who were going to school in peace on Friday don’t go—walk out onto streets that are incinerated now that we’re back—
FASKIANOS: Gayle, your line just dropped off.
LEMMON: Oh, I’m here.
FASKIANOS: OK, good. Thank you.
All right. So let’s take the first question.
OPERATOR: All right. At this time we’ll open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And our first question comes from Peter Galbraith with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Please go ahead, sir.
Q: Thank you for your presentations. I was just in northeast Syria last week, and one of the reasons they’re so—they feel so betrayed is they actually dismantled their defenses along the border as part of the deal that Ambassador Jeffries had negotiated.
My question is twofold. First, do you think Turkey is going to go into the cities, which of course are right on the border—I mean, the wall—they’re essentially joint cities with Turkey: Kobani, Qamishli, Amouda—and what would be the consequences of that?
And one of the things that the Kurds worry about is that actually Turkey’s goal is not just the safety zone, but that they plan to go all the way down to the Euphrates, to Deir el-Zour, to—and along the river and set up what would in effect be an opposition state to Assad, and then revive the war by bringing in the various militias that they had backed, including extremists, to reignite a war that Assad had largely won in the west.
FASKIANOS: Thanks, Peter. Steven, do you want to take that?
COOK: Sure. I think that the Turks at a military level are—by their very nature have prosecuted their incursions in Turkey in a way that puts Turks themselves in the least—in the least vulnerable position. So you do have these Syrian militias that are going to be the ones who are going to do a fair amount of the fighting, and I would suggest that they are likely to go into these cities and there will be significant combat in these places. The Turks are, clearly, trying to soften these areas up through artillery barrages and air strikes.
But as we know from modern warfare that artillery strikes and airpower can’t hold territory and if the Turkish goal is, as they say, to hold up to twenty miles into Syria, they’re going to have to fight in the cities. The question is whether the YPG is going to meet them in the cities or melt into the background and pursue a more asymmetric type of campaign against Turkey.
That—again, as I said before, both of those things run extraordinary risks for Turkey getting bogged down in Syria and unable to get out. As far as their goals go, yes, I have heard that and I’ve heard from Turkish sources that there is—that there has been and there’s been discussion of driving east quite far, establishing a—essentially, more than a buffer zone, a sort of sphere of influence in which to resettle Syrian refugees and to place pressure on the Assad regime.
There has been, though, some pushback from the Turkish General Staff, who are worried about this plan and are themselves concerned that they don’t necessarily have the capacity to undertake this kind of operation and sustain it for very long.
Remember, the Turkish armed forces were—have been through a lot in the last few years, and I know we talk about them as being the second largest military in NATO. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the most efficient or proficient at what they are doing.
So there has been some concern on that part. But it is certainly within the realm of possibility that we will see that, given the fact that there is no indication that President Erdogan has given up on the idea that there should be regime change in Syria.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Hani Findakly with Potomac Capital. Please go ahead.
Q: Hello. Thank you. That’s a very good presentation. My question is about the timing of the U.S. decision, and I am not a fan of foreign policy decisions being made, at least the process being made, in the U.S.
But I’m wondering what is the ultimate goal for U.S.? Does it have a strategy or would it make a difference whether we decide to withdraw today or a year or two from now? Turkey would still have permanent interest and will still have reacted the same way as it’s reacting today.
LEMMON: I have heard—this is Gayle—I have heard that. In fact, I was at a briefing in Washington last seek on this—on this topic and we had a long discussion about—with some policy folks about would the timing be any different, right, now versus X.
I think, to me, the real question is leverage. If it had been part of—there was—have been off and on discussions about making this part of a broader settlement, a broader discussion, a broader deal, a broader agreement in which leverage is used and exerted and in which the United States would act as guarantor, and I think that is what you see has been lost.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: And the next question comes from William Johnson with the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. Please go ahead, sir.
Q: Hi. This is actually Jonathan Lord. I’m joined here with Will Johnson at HASC.
We had a question. It’s actually a two-part. Could you speak a little bit to your perception of the Turkish calculus in this? I mean, it appears that the Turkish military was willfully participating in the security mechanism.
With this sort of an opportunistic act by Erdogan after the phone call with the president and, therefore, that just caused them to shift because they got much more of what they ultimately wanted, can you speak maybe a bit to that timeline in your mind of how one day they could have been cooperating with this and the other day switching so drastically to this incursion?
And part two, could you speak to the character of some of the TSO, the Turkish Security Opposition Forces, that are accompanying the Turkish military and what their makeup is like?
COOK: I’ll take that as far as I can. I don’t think that the Turkish armed forces is just being opportunistic here as a result of the president’s phone call with President Erdogan. I think that the Turks have been, clearly, mobilizing but have been deterred by the presence of Americans there.
I think the security mechanism actually gave the Turks an opportunity to scope out the area in violation of the agreement and that once President Erdogan, who has been reinforcing and underlining the president’s inclinations with regard to the defeat of the Caliphate with the idea that the United States no longer needs to be there with the defeat of the Caliphate and that—and that these are local problems that is best handled by local actors, that once the president agreed to the redeployment they can put in practice what they had been planning all along.
It strikes me that it would be extraordinarily difficult for them to switch gears in the way that you’re suggesting as a result of a phone call on a Sunday, and by Wednesday now a pretty significant—a pretty significant campaign.
As far as your second question goes, essentially, what you’re talking about is the Free Syrian Army, these militias that the Turks have trained and have equipped to do a fair bit of the ground fighting in previous operations like the operation in Afrin and will now be doing fighting against the YPG.
This is a group that the Turks put forward and offered to the United States when the United States went looking for allies in the fight against the Islamic State, and were rejected by the Pentagon on the grounds that they were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and riddled with extremists.
There doesn’t seem to me any evidence that they are any less riddled with extremist factions, though they may be better equipped and better trained these days.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
Oh, go ahead, Gayle.
LEMMON: I just wanted to pick up on Steven’s point. I just want to share things I’ve heard from the ground in the past twelve hours. One is this extreme concern about who would come into these northeast Syrian towns. It is really important to remember that while the rest of the world doesn’t often pay attention to the role of women, especially in war, on the ground women were very visible including in Raqqa, where I wrote a piece a year ago about the role of women coming out of their homes, who families had suffered under the Islamic State, young women from Arab communities, older women who had never worked before and never been out on the streets, joined security forces.
And so the women I talked to I have been—(audio break)—with others is just about extreme concerns about who will be entering their cities. And the last part that I wanted to add on to what Steven had begun is that there was concern from the United States side about overreach on the security mechanism that I was hearing as long as six weeks ago.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Gary O’Donoghue with the BBC. Please go ahead, sir.
Q: Hello, and thank you very much for doing this briefing. Incredibly helpful.
My question is about what—whether we know or have any idea of what Turkey envisages post any military phase of this operation. Do they have an idea? Do we think about a kind of bureaucratic administrative structure that would achieve whatever their goals are in terms of keeping the Kurd—the Kurdish forces and the Kurdish population from, in a sense, controlling that area? Do we know what they think that looks like?
COOK: My sense is, is that what they think it looks like is, essentially, what they’ve done in Afrin, which is, essentially, extended Turkey’s administration of Turkish territory into Syrian territory, and they are counting on the fact that the YPG and the PYD are a faction of the broader Kurdish community and the broader community that lives in northern Syria, and that this administration of—in northern Syria will undermine and isolate the YPG.
That’s what they think is going to happen. I suspect it’s not going to—it’s not going to work out exactly as the way they think it will. And, of course, there have been all kinds of problems in Afrin for reasons that Gayle was just elaborating.
So that’s what they—that’s what it’s clear to me that they are envisaging. Once they are there, I don’t think that they plan on leaving for very long because of the goal to ensure that the YPG/PKK cannot establish a territorially contiguous area from which they could, in turn, threaten Turkish territory.
I think what the Turks are missing is that if the YPG and the PKK want to threaten Turkish territory from northern Syria, they don’t have to be controlling Rojava, as it were.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Anne Barnard with the New York Times. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much.
So I have a couple of questions. I mean, first of all, has the U.S. really ended its security relationship with the SDF? I mean, our president certainly has been known to announce things and not carry them out. So is the relationship completely over, which seems like much more radical than even this surprising event of allowing this Turkish incursion and the redeployment of a small number of forces that were deterring that?
And that sort of leads to my next question, which is OK, suppose it is. Then what do we expect to happen next sort of writ large for the area? Is there a possibility that Kurds or the YPG or other groups would make a deal with Assad and Russia to defend them from the Turks? What would that look like?
And, alternatively—this is a little bit of a devil’s advocate question—would this Turkish idea of bringing in the Euphrates Shield rebels and other former FSAs that have become sponsored by Turkey, would that possibly be more effective than what Jim Jeffrey has been talking about, that the SDF is our best hope for, you know, maintaining some kind of alternative to Assad in northeastern Syria.
Maybe it’s more credible to actually bring in those forces. But is that already a ruined option because they’re discredited as Turkish mercenaries and that might risk inflaming Arabs and Kurdish tensions all the way down to Raqqa and Deir el-Zour?
LEMMON: I can take—(audio break)—
FASKIANOS: Gayle, you’re breaking up again.
LEMMON: Sorry. I was saying I could take this either first or second, whichever you want. If Steven wants to begin, I—
COOK: Go for it, Gayle, and then I’ll fill in. I’ll fill in.
LEMMON: Oh, OK.
LEMMON: Anne, first of all, hello. Very nice to—(audio break).
LEMMON: So a couple things on that. U.S. forces remain in the region and that is—that is the current status. What do we expect to happen next for the area? I mean, I’ve been talking to folks pretty regularly. Clearly, there is still a plea for international assistance. As of several hours ago at least, the SDF had not given up guarding Hol camp and also the detention center for ISIS fighters because of requests. I do not know how long that goes out and I do want to be very clear, I don’t have up-to-the-minute information on that. That was this morning that I received that information.
And but war—when I left in May, my colleagues and a couple of people I was interviewing were telling me the thing we don’t want is war. We just—we’re tired. And in terms of your governance piece, look, I spend a lot of time in different governing bodies and visiting and talking to people in different cities, Arabs and Kurds.
I do think there is a perception outside of the area that there are no—that is all one ethnicity and I spent time with Assyrian Christian young women. I spent time with—a lot of time with Arab women in Raqqa, and everybody wanted the same thing, which is stability, security, and the chance to send their kids to school, and they finally had that.
And there was one mom we’ve been following for two years. I met her in the summer of 2017. She walked out of Raqqa eight-and-a-half months pregnant during the siege of Raqqa, and it just happened that I could follow her story because when I would go back she was in the same camp living and then had changed jobs several times and I was tracking her story. And she said, you know, I’ve lived under Assad. I’ve lived under FSA. I’ve lived under ISIS and I’ve lived under this. And I would have told you six months ago, and she did tell me six months earlier, she’d prefer the regime. But she said now, you know, look, women’s voices are heard. We have a basic level of services. It’s not perfect and security is a challenge. But we have a basic shot and that is the best that we’ve had in years, and I heard that over and over again.
So it’s hard for me to imagine how—if you have human rights violations, and I think this is if, right. I’m not alleging this. But this is a by, with, and through that actually did its job in a place that, when you went back every two to three to four months, looks like it was on the margin, very fragile but very real progress, not because of the United States, which you never saw, right. You never saw U.S. forces. They were like the (odds ?) holding this entire thing together, keeping the regime out, keeping the Russians out, keepings the Iranians out, and until recently keeping the Turks out and helping to keep ISIS at bay. It was always local security forces that you saw, and I think that shocked me very much the first time I saw it, and I think it shocked everybody else who would come in,.
So things were very challenging. I’m not downplaying that. But the gains were real and they were made by Syrians, and that is what I think is at risk today.
COOK: Let me just add two quick points to what Gayle has said and, first, is on your question with regard to U.S. forces. I think yeah, U.S. forces remain in the area but what kind of security coordination is actually happening between them other than the request that they remain guarding over ISIS fighters? And I think Gayle raises a good question. How long can that—how long can that continue?
I strikes me that that there is no way—there is no way that the Turks would have undertaken this action had it not been for the president’s commitment to redeploying, essentially, end security cooperation with the YPG.
As far as your question goes with these Free Syrian Army elements and, you know, there’s been a lot of revisionist history and fighting among Obama administration officials about what was the correct course—correct course of action. And so making the argument that the Free Syrian Army—these elements of the Free Syrian Army—even if they were compromised represented a broader base of opposition to the Assad regime, certainly better than—better than the Kurds.
The problem is here we are now, and we spent three and half, four years coordinating with the YPG and the SDF. I think that the Free Syrian Army is seen as mercenaries of Turkey and I think it does pose further complications in terms of security and stability in that part of Syria.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Peg Chamberlin with the Council of Churches. Please go ahead. Ms. Chamberlin, your line—
FASKIANOS: Peg, are you there?
Q: Thank you. Thank you both for the work that you are doing and telling of the story.
I am still unclear about what the White House motivation was for this timing. Is there more clarity about that or more speculation about that, and what’s your perspective on what the White House might do next, should do next, and your perspective on Lindsey Graham’s legislative approach to this? Thank you.
COOK: Let me take a couple pieces of that. First, working backwards, Senator Graham has tabled legislation, along with Senator Chris Van Hollen from Maryland, that would impose sanctions on Turkish officials and prevent the Turks from purchasing American weapons. I think this is somewhat late in the game.
I should point out that Senator Graham just a number of weeks ago was offering Turkey a free trade agreement and a way back into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which it was pushed out of because it had purchased an advance Russian air defense system that could compromise the F-35.
So it’s—again, there hasn’t been a consistent administration or congressional position with regard to Turkey’s desire to go after the YPG in northern Syria. If there was, I think the Turks might have thought better about it. But I think they could count on the fact that, in the end, the United States was going to fold and let them do what they wanted to do.
And I’ll go back to what I said, that when it comes to—the president has increasingly been keeping his own counsel on important issues and I think that the Turks read him quite well, and have emphasized over and over again for the president that the Caliphate has been defeated, that as a result there is no need for the United States to still be in northeastern Syria, that there is no need for the relationship with the YPG, and that Turkey, as a strategic ally of the United States, can be responsible for that part of Syria and it has its own security concerns.
The administration has said that Turkey has legitimate security concerns but it hasn’t really offered a coherent response to what’s going on. The president has tweeted that he would, quote/unquote, “totally destroy” the Turkish economy if the Turks went beyond limits or off limits.
No one really knows what that means and what those limits might be—dare I say, what those red lines might be. So we’re in a situation where the United States is basically improvising its response to the Turkish incursion and if you go by—if you go by the president’s tweets, he, essentially, has washed his hands of any responsibility for this problem.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next—Gayle, you want to weigh in?
LEMMON: Just one point on that. I had long argued (inside ?) to the folks who were wanting to have conversations on this that the outlines of an agreement could be reached. And I know many people will think that is, you know, the stuff of fairy tales. But I deeply believe that there were—there’s room for talks between Turkey and the PKK, that folks could have their security concerns addressed, that the U.S. or an international force alongside the U.S.-the U.S. certainly did not have to do this alone—could help to monitor security concerns and you could have an area where people could have those questions addressed in a way that would not bring civilians harm. And I still hold out hope that a deal would be possible at some point because the outlines are there.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
COOK: Let me just underline something that—let me just underline something that Gayle said, that there is an outline of an agreement. Look, the Turks were engaged in negotiations with the PKK in 2013, in 2014. They were engaged in negotiations with the PYD, the political party affiliated with the YPG, as late as 2015.
Turkey’s domestic politics conspired against those negotiations. But it’s not like this is an impossible thing. I think part of the problem is here in the United States where no one wanted to care about or address the issue—the real hard issues in Syria and in Turkey with the small exception of negotiations who were put up to trying to work out the security mechanism. But given the fact that neither the White House nor the Congress really had much interest in it, they could only get as far as they—as they did before this incursion.
Part of the problem is that the foreign policy process in Washington no longer really exists. Under other circumstances you would have a foreign policy process in which the bureaucracy would work out the options, the costs, the benefits, come up with some type of plan in which the United States would oversee negotiations between its NATO ally and other groups to avoid this—to avoid this situation.
But there’s been too much washing of hands and saying we want to end forever wars without thinking about how to end them in a responsible manner.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Howard LaFranchi with the Christian Science Monitor. Please go ahead.
Q: Yeah, thanks for doing this.
So, obviously, in the past few days there has been a lot of talk about how through his decision the president, you know, has the United States betraying an ally, and I’m wondering—and that, of course, as we’ve seen, has come from both Republicans and Democrats. It’s a pretty widespread assessment. What do you see as kind of the long-term impact?
I mean, is it—does it end up being, well, in the end this was, you know, the Kurds or, you know, they’re not really a state factor—they’re not really a state ally, and so it’ll just kind of blow over? Or, you know, what do you see as kind of the long-term impact in the region and maybe even more broadly of this—what is seen as a betrayal of an ally?
LEMMON: Steve, do you want to start? And then I’ll add one story I want to add to this.
COOK: Sure. Of course. Thanks.
I think that this is, I think, a larger story than the YPG and I think it’s going to have a lasting impact. First, I think that the Kurds believe that they have been, quote/unquote, “stabbed in the back,” and Turkey believes that it has been abandoned by the very fact of the U.S. security relationship with the YPG. So both of the main actors in this conflict in northeastern Syria now believe they have been betrayed by the United States.
Let me remind you that this episode—the call on the White House—came just a couple weeks after what’s widely believed to have been an Iranian attack on two Saudi oil-processing facilities, which the United States responded in the—I think the most limited possible fashion that it could, and this sent a very strong message to Washington, to allies in the Gulf, that the commitments that we had made about their security and the commitments that we had made about the free flow of energy resources out of that region were not good.
We were not good to our word on those issues and I think there’s a pattern here, and allies are watching what has happened. And regardless of whether the Kurds are a state or not a state, the message is being sent that the United States comes calling and asking for help and makes commitments and responds, and doesn’t always keep them. I think if the United States changed its policy overnight and we reestablished those security ties with the YPG, the Kurds are weak. Of course, they’re going to—they will go back to a relationship with the United States and seek to get the most out of it.
But I think when it comes to major countries, major allies of ours, they are going to increasingly take matters into their own hands and pursue their interests as they see fit regardless of what the United States is doing, regardless of what commitments they have made to the United States, and vice versa.
And, to me, that is a deeply unsettling—a deeply unsettling development if only because we had some taste of it and that is, notably, in the Gulf. The Saudis took matters into their own hands and intervened in Yemen for—and the consequences have been disastrous. And I think that as countries believe that they’re on their own, we’re going to see more types of disastrous policies pursued by countries that don’t have the capacity to do the things that they believe that they can.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the moderator’s prerogative to extend this call by fifteen minutes, and Steven and Gayle, behind the scenes, have both indicated that they can go till 5:00 Eastern time, 2:00 Pacific time for Gayle.
LEMMON: And can I just—
FASKIANOS: So thank you to all of you for taking—oh. Gayle, go—
LEMMON: I just wanted to piggyback on his answer.
FASKIANOS: Go ahead, Gayle.
LEMMON: So the consequence, too, that I worry about is the fight against extremism that was really being waged. So Raqqa was a city that had endured so very much, and I had been there summer of 2017, then April, October, December, and then again in May, so four more times since, and been visiting with the same people.
And, you know, one shopkeeper I interviewed told me the last time we saw her in May that yes, she worried about security but that business was so good she had been open till 12:30 a.m. during Eid because people were coming back out on the street and she had in—working with her in her shop this fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girl who had never worked out of the home before who had nearly been arrested by ISIS for walking uncovered between buildings when she was visiting her family one night.
And she was talking about this generation of young women, seeing women out and kind of wanting to be a part of this. And later I was talking to a young man and I was asking him whether he joined ISIS—it was later that same day—and he was saying, no, I didn’t join. I said that—even though a lot of my cousins did, and I said, why not, and he said, well, because of my mother. And it’s that that I think about, right, all of these moms who had talked to me. I had gone to schools, interviewed teachers who were just talking about right after the Islamic state fell, little people went back to school, and they were playing at beheadings and hangings because that was what they had seen under the Islamic State.
And to me chaos and a vacuum is what allows extremism to thrive, and you had folks who would tell you, the first thing in an interview, that what they want is security and stability so that they can rebuild their lives. And this is going to produce the opposite of that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Steve Hellman with the Mobility Impact Partners. Please go ahead, sir.
Q: Hi, and thank you both for your insights.
Coming back to the—it’s somewhat of a follow-on from the previous discussion or previous question—was there—is there a sense of any—among the Kurds anyway, of any quid pro quo for all the assistance that they provided to the United States, that their territorial ambitions or ambitions for independence would somehow be satisfied in this great game that’s being played out? And perhaps even in a broader context with their allies in Iraq and perhaps even in Turkey in some sense, and ultimately potentially even leading to something of a Kurdish national homeland?
And obviously that’s not going to happen, but was there any sense that that was on the table on the one hand, and then on the other hand, assuming that now they’ve been abandoned by the United States, are they likely to kind of take this rolling over, or is this going to become—are the Kurds now going to become a major source of instability, not just in Syria, but in potentially Iraq and Turkey as well?
LEMMON: Maybe I’ll take the first part of that because I spent a lot of time talking with folks about this, and talked to the head of the SDF on Monday, Mazlum, and had been doing a lot of discussion about this with U.S. officials also in the context of research.
My understanding is that there was never a quid pro quo, but there was a sense that the U.S. did actually ask these folks to keep pushing—to push into other areas and to go on into Raqqa whether that was their initial inclination or not because they were the infantry that was producing the results the U.S. wanted to see in terms of ISIS defeat. And so there was a deep respect, there was a deep trust, and there was a deep sense that, you know, we will do our best to do right by you.
And I think that is—the question now—I had asked Mazlum this week about whether the Russians or the regime—whether there was an agreement to be made there, but it’s much harder to make an agreement when you have absolutely no leverage. And so I think that is the challenge that he and the Kurds were up against.
And then just finally about the state, I have never heard anybody talk about a nation-state, and that is in part because of the ideology that is what is so offensive to Turkey, right, is that these folks follow Abdullah Ocalan, who is the founder of PKK. And if you look at what the ideology now calls for, it is social ecology. It is this grassroots level, stateless democracy that is based on local participatory councils. And that has been their ideology. I’ve never heard anybody talk about anything other than keeping what they had rather than talking about a Kurdish nation or a Kurdish state.
FASKIANOS: Thanks. Steven, do you want to add?
COOK: I’m sorry, what was the second part of the question? I was so interested in what Gayle was saying that I lost the thread here.
LEMMON: I think the second part was about would the Kurds become a destabilizing force, and what about the idea of the nation-state.
COOK: Well, look, I think do the Kurds themselves become a destabilizing force; I think they already are, if only because the ethnonational states of the region have a significant problem with the idea of—the idea of that the Kurds can lay claim and have grievances against their states. I mean, we’re talking about Turkey, and let’s leave it at Turkey. From the very beginnings of the Republic of Turkey, the emphasis was on Turkishness and building an ethnonational state based on myths related to Turkishness.
Where does that leave Kurds, who for—up until very recently were not even referred to as Kurds but as “Mountain Turks,” and who have been unable to speak their language and so on. So the grievances that have emerged, that have made Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK, are rooted in this ethnonational state that has a hard time accommodating the idea that there are Kurds, and has a hard time dealing with the grievances and claims that Kurds have on the state.
So that has then spawned separatism, nationalism, alternative experiments in governance on the part of Kurds that are deeply threatening to Turkey, to Iraq, to Syria, and to Iran. And that is how—that is how the Kurds have been a destabilizing factor in the region and will likely continue to be destabilizing because these governments do not want to accommodate the idea of even Kurdish cultural autonomy.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Galen Carey with the National Association of Evangelicals. Please go ahead.
Q: Yes, hi. Thank you.
What are the implications for religious minorities in the area, and is their situation going to get a lot worse?
COOK: I’m going to punt to Gayle on that one.
LEMMON: (Laughs.) I would just say I have talked to the Syrian person—I mean, there’s a—actually an organization that put out a statement last night. I don’t think it’s clear what’s going to happen. I don’t want to assign or assume what comes next.
I do know there is great concern about what is going to happen, and I would point you to—you know, I mean, look, I spent time with a Syrian young woman who had spent four years fighting ISIS when I was there in May, and I spent a long time talking to a young—one young woman who is in law school and is part of the women’s force. And she talked about Christians who were kidnapped under ISIS, and that she joined this force because she wanted to protect her community. Her parents had opposed it initially, and then very much were in favor of it once they saw them making gains in protecting their areas from ISIS.
I think of all of those young women who have fought alongside the U.S. and served as—(audio break)—that the U.S. supported, and I think about all the uncertainty those young women are facing right now. It is very unclear. And I’m happy afterwards, Irina, to send to you the statement that one of the groups put out recently.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We can circulate that to the group if people are interested.
OPERATOR: And the next question comes from Ellen with Business Insider. Please go ahead. (Pause.)
And Ellen, your line is now live. Perhaps you muted on your end. (Pause.)
OK, and we will move on to the next question. And this comes from Mark Harrison with United Methodist Church. Please go ahead, sir.
Q: Hello, everyone, and thanks for the call.
I have a friend of mine who I follow on many issues that affect the Middle East, and the person said this: the YPG doesn’t represent Kurds; even Barzani isn’t backing them.
So Barzani is a major Kurdish leader. What do you all know about him? And how do you all see the YPG’s relationship to—its leadership capacity among the Kurdish people?
LEMMON: So I’ll start this, and then Steven, feel free. (Laughs.)
LEMMON: There’s nothing funny about this. I’m only laughing because I have spent months reading—and Steven knows about this. In the process of writing a book, you read—you know, you go down the rabbit hole of going into things that you just never expect you are actually going to be on a call talking about.
So initially the U.S. was introduced to the YPG—this was during the summer of 2014—Sinjar and mass atrocities had just happened, right? The Yazidis had just been—the men had been massacred in their villages, and the women had been taken and enslaved, and then successively sold to ISIS fighter after ISIS fighter in some of the most egregious crimes that I think—in any of our lifetimes.
And so when the U.S. was trying to figure out what to do next as Kobani was under siege, it was actually the other part of the Iraqi Kurd and the political leadership, like a Talabani, who had introduced the United States to representatives of the YPG. And a long conversation then ensued among all these parties about could the U.S. work with them, what about all these discussions and concerns about Turkey and the PKK, and a discussion was had. And that was really the foundation. The United States went through these questions in the United States military and in the United States government as a whole—the national security apparatus—and began in the summer of 2014 supporting from the air the People’s Protection Units.
I think it is accurate to say that they never—that this group was the most politically organized. They actually did—and The Washington Post wrote a piece in 2014 saying this group was actually the most—nobody had ever heard of the YPG—was the most effective in getting Yazidis off the mountain and to safety than even American airdrops were at the time. And so the U.S. started to pay attention and built a relationship over years that grew into the U.S. really asking them to keep pushing into ISIS territory and ultimately to retaking Raqqa.
Did the political party associated with the YPG ever stand for everybody? I think there were definitely opposition parties, and are opposition parties to them. But they were the best organized. They were definitely the most—the folks who were willing to bring the fight and, even when surrounded by ISIS, to keep fighting, and that is what the Americans took note of.
And then the governance piece, one thing I do want to note is that in every city they took, after they took it, there was a male head and a female head of every council, right—that women were put in leadership. So there was—many critics would say, listen, these were—Arabs were figureheads, and this was actually dressed up PKK. I always ask everybody in all these different cities that question. They were folks from those cities. Whether they were more sympathetic to one side or the other, you know, you could have your argument, but I just wish you guys could actually have seen it because it really did feel like a place where your biggest threat was feeling like things were normal.
Q: Who is Barzani?
COOK: Let me—let me just—
FASKIANOS: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mark. We’re going to—we’re going to—I’m not going to—we can’t do a follow up.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to just turn now to Steven to make his—you know, to add to that, and then unfortunately we are going to have to close. And I’m sorry I didn’t get to everybody’s questions.
COOK: OK, I’ll try to be quick, but we’re talking about Kurds and Kurdish factions. I don’t think anybody has ever made the claim that the YPG represents all Kurds. Kurds are distributed across four countries in the region—Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran—and there are really four main figureheads who are leaders of Turkey: two Iraqi leaders, Masoud Barzani and the late Jalal Talabani. They each control different political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. Abdullah Ocalan, who Gayle—who Gayle referenced before was the leader of the PKK, and now a guy named Selahattin Demirtas, who is the leader of a legal Kurdish-based Turkish party. And there are rivalries and splits between those groups, and they have gone after each other.
Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, wants to be the king of all Kurds, and as a result, he doesn’t like Abdullah Ocalan very much, and so, as a result, he doesn’t support the YPG because the YPG is loyal to Abdullah Ocalan.
It’s often said that the Kurds have enemies everywhere, but their own worst enemies are themselves, and I think that that’s the case. I think the relationship with the YPG came about out of circumstance and that is because the United States went looking for allies in the battlefield against the Islamic State. Turks demurred, said they didn’t like the American strategy because it didn’t include an American army marching on Damascus and engaging in regime change there. And they said that their priority was essentially fighting Kurds.
The United States then turned to the YPG, which raised its hand eagerly to fight the Islamic State, and that is how we got to this point—how we got to this point today.
FASKIANOS: Well, thank you, Gayle and Steven, for today’s call, and to all of you for your great questions. Again, I’m sorry that we couldn’t get to all of them. There are many more in queue, and that indicates to me that we need to convene this—convene both of you again and talk more about this.
You can follow Gayle on Twitter @GayleLemmon and Steven @StevenACook. Please go to CFR.org. We have a lot of nonpartisan analysis and information there, and the audio and transcript of this call will be posted on our website at CFR.org.
So thank you all again.