As Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan divide northeast Syria up between them at the expense of America’s abandoned Kurdish allies, President Trump returned to his favorite frame of reference when discussing the Syrian conflict: securing oil.
“We've secured the oil, and therefore a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil, and we're going to be protecting it and we'll be deciding what we're going to do with it in the future,” Trump announced to a bank of reporters on Wednesday.
Trump appears to be referring to a scheme which in its current incarnation revolves around the deployment of around 200 American special operations forces troops to a base or bases in Syria’s restive eastern province of Deir Ezzor, currently the site of a sustained and complex ISIS insurgency.
Cold Warriors and Iran hawks within the Trump administration, notably the circle around the controversial Syria envoy James Jeffrey, have long pushed the idea of using Deir Ezzor as a base to “confront Iran,” and as a means to deny Bashar Assad’s government the use of Syria’s most productive oil fields.
“It may seem weird to those outside Washington, D.C.,” Nicholas Heras, Syria analyst at the Centre for a New American Security think tank, told VICE News, “but there is a strong current of opinion within the think-tank scene, but also and more importantly among senior members of the Trump administration, particularly in the State Department, headed by Secretary of State Pompeo, a noted Iran hawk before he entered the executive branch, that the United States can have its cake and eat it too in eastern Syria.”
At the heart of this strategy is the notion of creating a purely Sunni Arab force composed of local tribes that can be used as an American proxy in the region, a long-held dream of figures in the Trump administration long hostile to the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces. “This dream of having a Sunni tribal army has never really died,” says Heras, “and in Deir Ezzor, Iran hawks and U.S. counterterrorism experts find a perfect place to mingle and mix their ideas.”
In this worldview, according to Heras, “the United States can work to build a strong Sunni Arab army that can prevent the reemergence of ISIS, and that same Sunni Arab tribal army can be used not only to box out Iran but also to take the fight to Iran in parts of eastern Syria and potentially western Iraq where Iran has built a so-called land bridge between Hezbollah in Lebanon and its forces in Iraq and Iran.”
To do this, Trump will need buy-in from the same angry and demoralized Kurdish forces he just betrayed. And while diplomatic representatives of the Syrian Democratic Council, the governing body of the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, have already expressed tentative support for this high-risk scheme, it is difficult to see what they will gain from signing up to it. In its current form, Trump’s shift in policy encourages Turkey to expel them from their homes further north, and exile them to the hostile and inhospitable deserts of Syria’s wild east at the mercy of a chaotic and seemingly faithless American ally.
”This plan can't survive in Syria. I doubt it could even survive for long in the Trump White House”
“How do you stand up a force in eastern Syria when you've just dropped your primary client, the YPG, and you’ve gutted the coalition you built over several years?” said Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation think tank. “You throw the YPG to the wolves, and a week later you start recruiting for new allies?”
Lund said the proposal could possibly be a "ploy to boost the YPG's negotiating leverage as U.S. forces withdraw, by letting them sell their control of some oil fields in return for amnesties and security guarantees," but he warned against it.
“Either way, I hope the YPG and other SDF fighters realize that this isn’t real – it’s not going to last. Because if this is poorly handled, they will take the fall for America’s blundering, and it could be really bad," Lund told VICE News. “Going back under Assad’s rule is going to be really grim, regardless. The last thing you need in that situation is an external power deciding to raise the stakes for its local clients even further, and then just pulling out and leaving.”
However, this is exactly what the United States appears to be planning.
Jeffrey, Trump’s embattled Syria envoy, has reportedly assured local Deir Ezzor journalist and activist Omar Abu Leyla that American forces will stay in Deir Ezzor for the long haul, protecting the local Arab tribes from both a resurgence of ISIS and the return of Assad’s authority, beefed up by Iranian-backed militias viewed with deep antipathy by the local population.
“The protesters will continue non-stop rejecting any presence of the Assad regime and Iran in Deir Ezzor”
In the weeks before Trump’s shock decision, the region had seen growing protests on the western side of the Euphrates, controlled by Damascus, of local tribesmen seeking to come under the authority of the then-US-backed SDF. The return of Assad’s government will be disastrous for local populations who have tied their fates to America’s continued presence.
Omar Abu Layla told VICE News that “the entire population opposes this withdrawal and clearly rejects any withdrawal,” fearing it will allow both ISIS cells to regroup and stage a comeback, and the oppressive Assad government to return to power in the region. “People have been protesting on a daily basis, expressing their refusal of the withdrawal, and they will not accept it at all.”
He said a return to the government’s rule is not an option: “The protesters will continue non-stop rejecting any presence of the Assad regime and Iran in Deir Ezzor.”
Indeed, the return of Assad’s rule to the West Bank of the Euphrates has seen numerous accusations by local tribesmen of reprisals by government forces and Shia militias under Iran’s control, with the U.S.-controlled eastern bank functioning as a refuge area for a long-marginalized and under-resourced section of the country’s population, who happen to live upon the country’s greatest reserves of petroleum wealth.
Complicating the already muddled plan to utilize these tribes as the bedrock of a vestigial Syria policy is the awkward fact that the local SDF forces recruited from among them, the Deir Ezzor Military Council, are the least disciplined and least effective component of the entire SDF. On previous extensive reporting trips to the region, YPG commanders cautioned VICE News against spending too much time with them, saying, “We don’t know who these people are, and we don’t trust them,” and expressing their fears they would either rob or kill us without YPG supervision.
Recruited hastily to put a local face on counter-ISIS operations in a culturally alien and hostile region, the Deir Ezzor Military Council has the dubious record of being the only SDF unit to film and post videos of its members committing the unlawful execution of captives. Widely believed by YPG commanders to be penetrated by ISIS operatives, the Deir Ezzor Military Council or any new force recruited from among its members will be a less congenial military partner than the YPG-dominated SDF, particularly in a region where strong sympathies for ISIS still exist, and where the SDF was even before the American pullout struggling to contain a growing and effective ISIS insurgency.
"What happens if — or more likely when — Russia, Iran, and Assad start to test us in the east?”
Surrounded by a hostile and growing ISIS insurgency, cut off from resupply by both the Iraqi government and Iranian-backed militias within Syria, and Russian forces keen to win back Assad’s control of these vital oil resources, American forces will face what Brett McGurk, former envoy to the Coalition to Defeat Daesh, has termed a “Fort Apache” scenario. Strangers in a hostile land, their security will depend on whatever demoralized, exiled fragments of the SDF survive Turkish assault and a local tribal militia of dubious loyalty and effectiveness.
As a plan, it is just barely possible to achieve, said Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War: “It is viable insofar as we can, in theory, pull it off militarily. We could establish or retain one or more bases in Deir ez Zour province and provide aerial resupply in addition to air support."
Whether it is advisable, however, is another matter entirely. Cafarella notes that “it’s more complicated politically. What happens if — or more likely when — Russia, Iran, and Assad start to test us in the east? Thus far we’ve demonstrated a tactical ability to defend against specific attacks, but we may face an attempt by Russia to compel us to withdraw by threatening our air assets.”
The logistical and political obstacles to this plan are manifold, but the moral arguments against it are even starker: America will find itself deserting its SDF allies to the loss of their homes and family lives, expecting the survivors to reform themselves into a mercenary oilfield-protection force, all while Trump publicly denigrates them. As Lund observes, “The United States has misled its Kurdish allies time and time again. Over the past couple of years, American diplomats have pressured the YPG to not adjust to the actual balance of power on the ground by preparing a solution with Damascus. They told them American troops were there to stay, they had nothing to worry about. And as bad as that is, it would be just scandalous if they're going to do it again. Because of course an enclave like this can't survive in the long run. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hostiles, with no legal foundation to stand on, even in terms of U.S. law.”
Lunded added: “Even if Trump can be cajoled into approving it, it would have only the flimsiest American commitment imaginable, and that’s going into an election. This plan can't survive in Syria. I doubt it could even survive for long in the Trump White House.”
”They told them American troops were there to stay, they had nothing to worry about. And as bad as that is, it would be just scandalous if they're going to do it again.”
Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group likewise characterized the Deir Ezzor proposal as the morally bankrupt product of a misguided and chaotic State Department. “If the U.S.' counter-ISIS achievements can only be sustained by an open-ended, illegal presence in Syria, that is a sign that the U.S.'s counter-ISIS mission is gravely misconceived," he said. "That's to say nothing of the idea that U.S. forces would just sit on top of some oil fields as the U.S.' main local partner in the fight against ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are left to fend for themselves. Choosing to extend the U.S.' protection to some dubiously useful oil but not to the U.S.' partners as they attempt to defend their home communities would seem unspeakably dark.”
In any event, America’s role in the Syrian civil war has already moved from a battle between warring factions within the Trump administration over who to support to an object of inquiry for academic historians.
In a historic seven-hour meeting in Russia’s Sochi on Tuesday, Erdogan and Putin hammered out an agreement carving up northeast Syria between them and settling this phase of the Syrian war for good, freezing out America and cementing Russia’s role as the new arbiter in the Middle East.
The YPG, according to this deal, will withdraw from northeast Syria’s borderlands, and joint Russian and Turkish patrols will secure the border to Erdogan’s satisfaction. An alternative plan to use Western Iraq as a base for counterterror operations in Syria was shot down by the Iraqi government, which gave the US four weeks to leave the country. Perhaps not since the Suez Crisis, which marked the steep decline of British power in the postwar world, has imperial might declined so precipitously and humiliatingly in the region, and it is clear that the State Department will have to reflect solemnly at the root causes of this dramatic policy failure.
In the most charitable possible interpretation, America’s Syria policy under the helm of Jeffrey, an old Turkey hand edging toward retirement, was outfoxed by a more capable and united Turkish government. Promises were made and broken to America’s Syrian partners, and as a consequence, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, possibly never to return.
As Jeffrey faced Congress, where he was forced to defend his record in the face of bipartisan opposition and stern condemnation of every NATO partner aside from Turkey, the Pentagon attempted to sell a vague version of this scheme to the American people. As a serious policy proposal, it is unlikely to last beyond the end of the month. As an attempt to salvage something from what may be the greatest failure of American diplomacy in a decade, it will be the merest footnote on a sad and cautionary tale to future U.S. governments and American allies alike.
Cover: Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-allied Kurdish-led rebel group, patrol through the then-Islamic State-held village of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. Photo by: Aboud Hamam/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images