Alan Zendell, October 17, 2017

Where, a mere five years ago, a thriving city of a quarter million (and more including its environs) stood on the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, this is what’s there now.


Somehow, the world allowed ISIS to take over this city and turn it into a charnel house of terror and death. Everyone stood by and watched it happen, the United States, Europe, Russia, and the rest of the Middle East. And while ISIS destroyed the moral fabric and culture of the city, its physical destruction was the price of its liberation. As is always the case in war, an entrenched fanatical occupying force would rather see a city destroyed than concede defeat.

As of this morning, as news services around the world report the final defeat of ISIS in its self-declared capital, I am disappointed in the White House’s response. This is a vitally important story, easily worth equal time with who did what in Puerto Rico and whether overpaid football players stand for the national anthem. Yet, all the president had to say was that the victory was achieved because of the changes he made to the military, even though it is the result of a strategic initiative orchestrated by his predecessor more than a year ago. The significance of driving ISIS out of Raqqa deserves a better response than who gets to take credit for it.

The victory has been inevitable for months, once we declared our determination to see it through. Did the administration spend that time planning the disposition of over a half million refugees stuck in makeshift camps in Syria and elsewhere? And what of the physical reconstruction of the city in the midst of Syria’s civil war when its government controls only a fraction of the country around Damascus?

If the Trump administration does not have a a clear objective for dealing with the aftermath, it could be as disastrous as the power vacuum left in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed. And perhaps more important from an international perspective is who will now control and govern this oil-rich region. The victory was achieved by U. S. backed Arabs of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and our most dependable allies in the region, the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units known as the YPG, the armed Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in TurkeyWhile the SDF has grown…to include a notable number of Arab recruits, in practice it remains squarely under YPG command and wholly reliant upon the PKK-trained Kurdish fighters who form its backbone.

There are a number of other major players in this game who all have competing interests: the American-led coalition that provided air support for the assaults on Raqqa, the supporters of Syria’s nominal president Bashar Assad, Iran, Russia, and perhaps most troublesome for the Trump administration, our NATO partner Turkey. Both the United States and Turkey currently list the PKK as a terrorist organization.

It looks like a mess, doesn’t it? I don’t know enough to offer a solution, but if the Trump administration isn’t on top of it, we could soon be facing a new fight more dangerous than the one ISIS posed. Somehow, with all the turmoil over North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention the internal struggles in the White House, the situation in Raqqa hasn’t been on anyone’s strategic radar screens, at least not within public view.

The fifteen year disasters of American attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us not to try it again in Syria. If anything will unite our Congress it will be standing against any attempt to commit serious American resources in Syria, unless the president clearly articulates and defends his end game. Even then, any such initiative will be problematic, as a long-term commitment in Syria would blow both our national budget and the Republicans’ attempt to reduce taxes.

Does the president have a strategy to prevent the predictable explosion when competing forces rush in to fill the new vacuum created by the defeat of ISIS? And what of Russia which is not likely to abandon its long-term investment in Syria? Neither of them is going away, and neither is the YPG. The latter have fought too long and hard for a homeland of their own to simply withdraw into the background now that they’ve proved their value as American allies, but neither Turkey nor Iraq has shown any sign of recognizing the Kurds’ claims for independence.

This situation is going to require the utmost delicacy in American diplomacy, and it will depend on support from our traditional allies in Europe and the so-called moderate Arab nations. All of which raises the question that people have been asking ever since Trump took office. How can we expect our allies to support us when Trump’s actions to date have caused many foreign leaders to question whether they can still trust us diplomatically?

That’s a damn good question. I hope the Trump administration is prepared to answer it.

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