Vying for influence in Syria

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Syria.

It’s been a little more than six weeks since President Trump decided to pull troops from northern Syria. On October 7th, U.S. military forces began their withdrawal. That left our Kurdish allies, who led the fight against ISIS, to fend for themselves.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Two days later, Turkish forces swept through, sending nearly 200,000 civilians fleeing. More than 120 civilians have died in the offensive. Then, Russian and Syrian troops swept into parts of northern Syria.

And on October 26th, U.S. forces killed the world’s number one terrorist during a raid just three miles from the Turkish border. If that relatively small part of the world sounds like it’s getting crowded, it is. At least five countries and countless non-state actors have a footprint in Syria. 

WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson reports now on the web of people and events circling the country.

AUDIO: [U.S. troops arrive in northern Syria]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: In late 2015, U.S. troops arrived in northern Syria. Their mission? To drive Islamic State militants out of their strongholds. And the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of Kurds and Arabs, became our chief ally in that fight.

In March, President Trump declared Islamic State defeated. Seven months later he said it was time to leave Syria.

TRUMP: Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand.

U.S. troops packed up and moved out. Turkish forces moved in. And Kurdish, Christian, and Arab civilians fled for their lives. Turkey has long accused America of training Kurdish groups they say have ties to the terrorist organization known as the PKK. Ankara justified its move into Syria as part of its own campaign to stamp out terrorism.

Turkish warplanes and drones fired on unarmed civilians as they fled. And the predominantly Christian town of Tel Tamer was one of the targets. Nearly 100,000 Syriac Christians live in the region.

Turkey had promised to protect civilians and religious minorities during the pre-planned invasion. After it clearly broke that promise, Washington imposed sanctions. President Trump lifted them when Turkey agreed to a cease fire.

Reports from the frontlines claim Turkey did not live up to its end of the bargain. Some accounts even accuse Turkish-backed Arab forces of war crimes.

Meanwhile, President Trump announced he would keep 800 U.S. troops in the country, but not to protect the religious minorities under attack.

TRUMP: But we did leave soldiers because we’re keeping the oil. I like oil.

Some say that statement created the perfect setup for Islamic State recruitment. Blaise Misztal is a Middle East expert and fellow at the Hudson Institute. He says at the very least, it misrepresented our mission in the region.

MISZTAL: I think it’s unfortunate to talk about the U.S. taking the oil because that feeds into conspiracy theories and misconceptions about why the U.S. is in the Middle East in the first place.

The Pentagon’s Rear Admiral Bill Byrne clarified the president’s remarks during a November press conference: The oil revenue will go directly to Syrian Kurds.

BYRNE: I would be cautious in saying that the mission is to secure the oil fields. The mission is the defeat of ISIS. The securing of the oil fields is a subordinate task to that mission. The purpose of that task is to deny ISIS the revenues from that oil infrastructure.

Syria’s oil resources aren’t much, but they provided the bulk of Islamic State income when it controlled the oil facilities in 2014 and 2015. There are still 14 to 18,000 IS fighters in Iraq and Syria.

But Misztal says they aren’t the only threat U.S. troops are trying to guard against.

MISZTAL: Even though it’s an unstated policy, I think it is part of the administration’s thinking ensuring that these resources are not seized by Assad, Russia and Iran and used to continue their reign of terror in Syria.

Russia is already guilty of land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine. Now it’s eyeing Syria’s warm water bases. Russian troops quickly took over the main military base the U.S. built and abandoned last month in Syria.

Iran is also trying to stake a claim. Tehran wants to secure a land bridge to the Mediterranean and all the way to Israel. Like Moscow, it has backed the Assad regime.

AUDIO: [Sound of protests]

The Syrian Kurds are caught in the middle and have warned of an Islamic State resurgence. Hundreds took to the streets in early November to protest joint Turkish-Russian patrols in northern Syria.

AUDIO: [Trump-Erdogan]

Members of Congress called on President Trump to hold Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accountable during his visit to the White House last week. Instead, the president emphasized their good relationship.

TRUMP: The President and I have been—we’ve been very good friends. We’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day one and we understand each other’s country, we understand where we’re coming from.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien while on “Face the Nation” earlier this month said the administration is at odds with some of Ankara’s decisions. But he also noted Turkey’s geopolitical significance.

O’BRIEN: Losing Turkey as an ally is not something that’s good for Europe or for the United States.

But Turkey may not be the ally it used to be. Misztal says Ankara drifted away from the West long ago and is linked to the primary forces destabilizing the region.

MISZTAL: One is radical Islamism in the form of not just the Islamic State but a wide range of terrorist groups,  some of which the Turkish government actively works with and are affiliated with Al-Qaeda. But also Iranian aggression and regional expansionism.

Misztal says the Kurds stand out as a group trying to protect its own territory, not grab land. But without U.S. support, the odds are stacked against them and the region’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Darko Bandic) Crewmen sit inside Bradley fighting vehicles at a US military base at an undisclosed location in Northeastern Syria, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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