There has been a great deal of international outrage over what quite rightly has been called an abandonment of the Syrian Kurds by the United States. President Donald Trump’s rash actions in late October to remove U.S. special operations forces from Syria, condemned by both our foreign allies and nearly the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment, will go down as a dark point in U.S. unconventional warfare history.
As a former senior CIA official with extensive experience working with indigenous units, I shared such disgust and felt a sense of shame, as I knew firsthand what my U.S. military and intelligence community colleagues must have been feeling as they packed up and left nearly overnight. The bonds of working with indigenous units are formed on the battlefield and in the toughest of conditions. The Syrian Kurds in particular were both exemplary and courageous partners in the counter-ISIS fight. In my view, the precipitous U.S. withdrawal will undoubtedly complicate future efforts where the United States must work on the ground with indigenous forces. Following the recapture of all territory once held by ISIS, what was once defined as one of the most successful unconventional military campaigns in history will now be remembered as a sign of American capitulation and cowardice. How incredibly unfortunate.
That said, there is a stark superficiality to what has been written and discussed about this issue in the U.S. media. First and foremost, our Syrian Kurdish partners—the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF)—largely consisted of members of the People’s Protection Units, or the YPG. As the Turkish government claimed, and many in the U.S. national security community fully grasped as well, the YPG was simply a rebrand of the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a longtime terrorist group that has killed thousands of innocent Turks, and indeed Americans, in its decades-long struggle against the Turkish state, a NATO ally of the United States. The PKK holds a severe Marxist-Leninist ideology, certainly diametrically opposed with the principles of freedom and democracy espoused by the United States. In fact, colleagues of mine who have served at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara over the years remember all too well the danger they faced from the PKK. So let’s call it like it is — the YPG and the PKK for all essential purposes were one and the same.
War makes strange bedfellows, and as such a conscious and deliberate decision was reached by the U.S. government to partner with the YPG (i.e., the PKK) in the counter-ISIS fight. Make no mistake, the United States knowingly and deliberately threw in our lot with one arm of a terrorist group, albeit a more palatable one, to fight another who was far more deadly and a direct threat to the United States, including U.S. territory.
I was no stranger to dealing with such moral ambiguity, as this is a hallmark of the murky world of intelligence and special operations. In Afghanistan, U.S. relationships with warlords — some with possible ties to international drug networks and pretty lousy human rights records — had long been a part of the strategy in fighting al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. The recent “Afghanistan Papers” published by the Washington Post laid this bare for the world to see. But it was a deliberate strategy of the United States: the assessment after 9/11 was that U.S. operators would go to battle with anyone that could be useful in our fight against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban (within the confines of what the law allows, such as vetting of units receiving U.S. support and seeking to ensure the United States does not support or become complicit in war crimes or human rights abuses). As such, I personally had no moral qualms about our relationship with the YPG, as it was a mission critical requirement to defeat ISIS, which was (and remains) a danger to the United States as well as our interests around the world.
Quite naturally, the U.S. tactical alliance with the YPG was anathema to the government of Turkey, our strategic and often problematic ally of the last 70 years. The Turks viewed YPG senior leader Mazloum Kobani Abdi—the U.S. military’s most public YPG interlocutor—as a hardened terrorist. They charged that he previously had been a senior leader for urban operations in Turkey—that is a dry term for Mazloum’s role in killing scores of Turkish civilians in southeastern Turkey. Of some irony, the U.S. government has long had programs in the military and intelligence arenas to assist the Turkish government in its fight against the PKK. And thus, we were faced with a situation in which U.S. special operations forces and intelligence community personnel were working on the ground with a group that other elements of the U.S. government had traditionally been helping the Turks in trying to destroy.
This was a fundamental contradiction that never was resolved. And that everyone from the White House on down simply wished away to deal with for another day. That day became a reality with President Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, as a result of what appeared was a simple phone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was pleading his case yet again that the U.S. support for the YPG was untenable to Ankara.
In discussing this paradoxical policy situation within U.S. national security circles, there were also potential force protection concerns for U.S. forces working with the YPG. The YPG units on the ground as well as their leadership were well too aware about the contradictions in U.S. policy. An imagined but not impossible scenario was that the United States helped the government of Turkey strike PKK targets, while the U.S. military and intelligence units in Syria were working side by side with the YPG in fighting ISIS. How would the YPG rank and file forces have reacted to such an event? Such questions kept me up at night while at CIA, and we discussed this ad nauseam internally at CIA and within the policy community. A proper solution could never be found, and we were essentially told to “get on with it,” executing a policy with massive contradictions.
The day of reckoning in our policy finally came to fruition in October. Yes, the outrage was justified that we abandoned our Syrian Kurdish partners, who were true heroes in the counter-ISIS fight. But for those of us who followed this issue closely, it was not a surprise that our support to the YPG would be fleeting and unsustainable. While we knew this day would eventually come, I for one always believed this could have been better managed with a gradual and deliberate withdrawal of U.S. support for the YPG as the counter-ISIS fight wound down and victory was at hand. There were actions we could have taken to “take the training wheels off” and slowly disengage with the YPG, enough so perhaps to satisfy the Turks that our alliance with the YPG was to be short-lived, but not disengage so quickly that our counter-ISIS operations were so affected.
In sum, President Trump caused a near calamity by his outrageously rash actions, jeopardizing both our war fighting ability against ISIS, and also causing terrible humanitarian costs that are still not fully known today. But make no mistake: a long-term relationship with the YPG was fundamentally both quixotic and impossible, given the historic grievances held by the government of Turkey against a U.S.-designated terrorist group that had killed thousands of Turks. It is important to understand this policy paradox the U.S. government faced when President Trump made his rash, immoral, yet fundamentally inevitable decision to disengage with the YPG and ultimately side with Turkey.