A U.S. ally in Syria confronts new threats

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters perform manoeuvres past tents with posters showing the flags of the Kurdish People's Protection Forces (YPG), during a military exercise near the rebel-held town of al-Rai in the north of Aleppo province along the border with Turkey, on July 24, 2019. / AFP / Nazeer AL-KHATIB

In the direct and disciplined voice of Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia, you can hear the determination that has made the Kurds a great partner for America, and one of the extraordinary survival stories of the Middle East.

Mazloum quietly enumerates the sacrifices made by his group, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the obliteration of Daesh (ISIS): 11,000 of his fighters were killed, 24,000 were wounded, and many thousands of civilians perished or were driven from their homes. American dead in the Daesh fight were less than 10.

“That was the price we gave to defeat ISIS,” Mazloum told me this week in an interview. “The people here desire to have the fruit of the sacrifices they made.” Mazloum spoke at his headquarters here, known as the “Yellow House” with its bright color against the flat, sun-parched landscape. And yet, instead of receiving thanks, Mazloum and his fighters have been coping with new threats. President Trump announced last December that he wanted to quickly withdraw American troops from their support of the SDF, as the Kurdish militia is known, and turn security in the area over to Turkey, the Kurds’ historical enemy.

Fortunately, Trump was talked out of that profoundly unwise move by his military and civilian advisers, and about 1,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces remain in the country. Their encampment is visible here, near the landing zone that has supplied the small U.S. force.

Mazloum doesn’t mention Trump’s near betrayal. “We respect any decision made by the U.S. whether they want to stay or leave.” But he hopes the U.S. will remain a player in the Kurdish regions of northeast Syria “to achieve an irreversible solution for all the parties in Syria and the defeat of ISIS.”

A mortal new danger is emerging because of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat this month to invade the Kurdish area, to crush what he claims is the Kurdish terrorist threat. Here, again, Mazloum reacts calmly. He says he’s ready to support an American proposal for joint U.S.-Turkish patrols in northeast Syria - if it will forestall the Turkish attack.

“War is not good for anyone,” he tells me, saying he’s open to a plan for joint U.S.-Turkish patrols advanced by U.S. special envoy James Jeffrey. “We would like to discuss details of these joint patrols directly with the Turks, or be part of this process,” he says. His one condition is “no permanent base for the Turkish military in our territory.”

The American diplomatic approach, with the Kurds participating through some cut out, would be an ideal solution, since it might begin to ease the poisonous feud between Erdogan and the Kurds. Mazloum warns that if Turkey does invade, “we will not keep the battle just in areas Turkey wants,” but wage counterstrikes all along the 600-kilometer border between Turkey and Kurdish areas. He says his forces won’t cross the border, “but of course Kurdish people everywhere will cooperate,” presumably including the millions inside Turkey.

Mazloum is coping with a final potential nightmare, which is detention of the 12,000 Daesh fighters who were captured when the caliphate was crushed. He revealed that this group numbers 2,500 foreign fighters, including about 1,000 Europeans, in addition to 3,000 Iraqis. If Turkey invades, he says, his fighters won’t be able to guard the prisons - which means that thousands of potential terrorists could be loosed on the world.

America has made so many blunders in the Middle East over the last few decades that it’s worth celebrating two successful military missions here in Syria - the partnership with Mazloum and the SDF in northeast Syria, and a much smaller alliance with a Sunni tribal force known as the Maghawir al-Thawra in the south.

Traveling with Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Centcom commander, I was able to see both Monday. After visiting Ain al-Arab - known in Kurdish as Kobani - along the northern border, we flew south to Al-Tanf garrison on the southern frontier, at a strategic point along the Baghdad-Damascus highway, near where Syria, Jordan and Iraq converge.

Like the SDF mission, the Al-Tanf operation is a lean, small-footprint, low-visibility project run by Special Operations Forces. These mostly bearded, sunbaked SOF warriors aren’t the answer to every military problem. But they have done superbly in partnering with local forces in Syria.

Listening to Mazloum, you understand that good partners are the essential requirement for successful security operations. Trust has been built through bloody sacrifice, and President Trump should listen to Mazloum’s words and understand how precious it is.

David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 29, 2019, on page 6.




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