Never before in history has the US worked with a group and then opened the skies to have another US ally bomb and destroy it. On October 9, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of mostly Kurdish fighters who fought ISIS for five years and helped create a peaceful and stable area in northeast Syria, were bombed and bombarded by Turkey as US forces withdrew and watched.
In an unprecedented reversal for Washington's policy in Syria, the Americans armed, trained and encouraged the SDF to liberate wide swaths of Syria from ISIS only to turn around on October 6 and, under the leadership of US President Donald Trump, give Turkey the open skies and borders to attack US partner forces. Like thieves in the night, US forces withdrew from their positions without explanation, processes, discussions, or leaving behind people to monitor the area, and made it clear to Ankara that nothing would be done to impede an attack.
Like thieves in the night, US forces withdrew from their positions without explanation.
NATO appeared to give tacit approval to Turkey, a member state, to invade northeast Syria, while many European countries expressed concern. Some of these countries, such as the UK and France, had been partners with the US in the coalition against ISIS and had fought alongside the SDF for years. They too were not informed on October 6 as the US decided to say that ISIS detainees were not Turkey's responsibility and that the US would withdraw from the border. Paris and London appear dismayed that Turkey has invaded, but like the US, they don't want to do anything to prevent their SDF partners from being killed in airstrikes.
Turkey has labeled its operation a "fountain of peace," arguing that it is "clearing" the border area of "terrorists" up to a depth of 30 km. Turkey then intends to settle several million Arab refugees from other parts of Syria in the Kurdish part of northeast Syria, clearing Kurds from their historical lands to make way for up to 140 towns, 200,000 houses and billions in foreign investment.
Turkey informed the UN General Assembly of its plans in September. Although the military invasion of a foreign country, settling of people and confiscation of the lands of the indigenous inhabitants is usually illegal under international law, a new set of global rules have been created for Turkey's operation.
The unprecedented nature of Turkey's attack on Wednesday, bombing peaceful towns along the border with impunity, represents not only a setback for 30 years of US policies in the Middle East and around the world, but also a change in the concept of international law and the change in the way Western powers deal with partners that used to fight ISIS.
It came as a shock to the SDF that the US would withdraw so quickly and without explanation – without discussions or a process in place. They suffered around 11,000 casualties fighting ISIS, many of them alongside the US in battles such as Raqqa and Baghouz, pressed to complete the total defeat of the ISIS "caliphate," only to then be told that now that ISIS was defeated, they would be abandoned.
Rarely have Western powers and the US invested in a place for years only to leave so abruptly. Comparisons were drawn with the fall of Saigon in 1975. But the US had left Vietnam in 1973 and provided the South Vietnamese government with massive supplies upon leaving.
Iran, Russia, the Arab League and others have expressed concern about Turkey's invasion, but they don't have a plan in place to do anything. The US still controls the airspace in eastern Syria, allowing Turkey to use it to bomb and destroy America's SDF partners. Russia or the Syrian regime have no way of imposing any kind of other order.
The US plan now appears to be a method of making way for Turkey to slowly destroy the SDF piece by piece and bomb the cities of eastern Syria into submission one by one, until Turkey has taken as much as it wants. The US will ask the SDF to continue to keep watch over ISIS detainees and to keep ISIS sleeper cells suppressed and keep the Syrian regime or other forces from entering. The goal will be to keep Russia and Iran out, while letting Turkey defeat the SDF, eventually withdrawing at the last moment.
Washington has not thought this through completely, but the scenes from October 9, of fires burning in cities that were quiet and peaceful for years and which were rebuilding themselves from the ISIS terror of 2014, shows the result of US policy failure.
It appears to be the beginning of the end of the US role in Syria.
Turkey, galvanized by popular nationalism and a blend of militarism and religious awakening, has held prayers in mosques across the country for the defeat of the SDF. Local Arab units recruited from the Free Syrian Army and backed by Turkey have held swords and rifles in their hands and said they are coming to slaughter the "kuffar" or "infidels," and the "atheists," a term used for the Kurdistan Workers Party, which they say the SDF is linked to.
Far-right elements within these Syrian rebel forces will allegedly be used by Turkey to occupy areas taken from the SDF, replacing an American-backed secular multi-ethnic force with a sectarian militia. It appears to be the beginning of the end of the US's role in Syria, one in which US partners were sacrificed.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.