April 6, 2019


How Trump Betrayed the General Who Defeated ISIS (Robin Wright, April 4, 2019, The New Yorker)

The United States had struggled to identify or create a credible rebel force in Syria. Mazloum had a standing militia that proved it could fight, even with only vintage weapons. Between 2011 and 2013, without foreign support, it had pushed Syrian government forces out of northern Kurdish towns during the Arab Spring and fought off an Al Qaeda franchise that moved on Kurdish turf. A senior U.S. military official looked for an introduction. The United States was not the only country interested in the Kurdish general, U.S. officials told me. On the morning of August 18th, Mazloum met Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force, the most élite unit in the Revolutionary Guard. The Iranians had rushed in--faster than the Americans did--to help the Iraqis hold off the isis juggernaut. Hours after meeting the Iranian commander, Mazloum rendezvoused with the American official in Suleimaniya, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq.

Mazloum came with complications, however. His original militia was the People's Protection Units, or Y.P.G.; it was Kurdish. Its political arm sought autonomy in Syria. Many of its members, including Mazloum, had trained with a militant Turkish movement--the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or P.K.K.--which was waging an insurgency to win autonomy in Turkey. The P.K.K. was on the U.S. and Turkish lists of terrorist organizations. Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, had lived in the Kurdish region of Syria for two decades before he was imprisoned, in 1999, in Turkey. Öcalan was a personal friend of Mazloum's; they were once photographed swimming together in the Euphrates River. "For a period of time, I served in P.K.K. ranks," Mazloum told me. "Öcalan was working here, and the people here had loyalty to him. But the Y.P.G. is not a terrorist organization. Always the Turks like to paint everything in Syria like it's the P.K.K., but this is not true." Yet Mazloum has relatives who are still with the P.K.K. Huge posters of Öcalan adorned every Y.P.G. and S.D.F. base I visited.

The American overture to Mazloum had both conditions and limits, senior U.S. officials told me. The U.S.-backed coalition could provide strategic advice but no major arms, because of the Y.P.G.'s history. If the Kurds took territory from isis, they had to include other ethnic or religious groups, notably Arabs and Christians, in setting up governance and security. The Kurdish militia had to accept that its region would remain part of Syria--and not try to break away into an independent Kurdish state. And they had to vow not to attack Turkish interests. If any of those terms were violated, the U.S. would walk away. Mazloum opted for an alliance with the Americans. "At the time, isis was getting stronger every day," he told me. "We were at capacity just stemming the tide and protecting our area. The United States intervening in this fight changed the balance of power between us and isis."

The makeshift alliance was tested a few weeks later, when isis invaded Kobani, a strategic town built as a whistle stop on the Berlin-Baghdad railway. Kobani is Mazloum's home town. He incorporated it into the nom de guerre by which he is known. (His real name is Ferhat Abdi Şahin.) isis seized sixty per cent of the city, forcing most of its forty thousand residents to flee across the border to Turkey. In October, 2014, I watched from a nearby hill in Turkey as isis pounded Kobani with thundering artillery. isis's black-and-white flag billowed on the horizon.

Kobani proved to be a turning point for Washington. The Obama Administration expanded its intervention, from Iraq into Syria, with air strikes on isis forces in Kobani. Among the targets was Mazloum's home. isis had seized it as an operations center. Mazloum approved the U.S. decision to destroy it, a senior U.S. official told me. The marriage of American air power and a tough local militia on the ground--dubbed the "hammer and anvil" strategy--succeeded. After a gruelling five-month battle, isis experienced its first defeat. In January, 2015, Mazloum's militia hoisted its yellow banner atop Kobani's highest hill; fighters, both male and female, danced by firelight amid the city's bombed-out ruins. Kobani, where more than thirteen hundred Kurds perished, still ranks as the longest, deadliest, and most vicious battle with the Islamic State. It later became a base used by U.S. Special Forces and a small team of U.S. diplomats.

The partnership deepened in the second phase. In April, 2015, the U.S. approached Mazloum about leading the war against isis beyond Syria's Kurdish regions. The Obama Administration was on the verge of abandoning a separate Pentagon program to train fifteen thousand Syrians in Turkey and Jordan. Five hundred million dollars had been allocated for the program; ultimately, fifty million dollars were spent, and it produced only a handful of trained soldiers. "I wasn't happy with the early efforts," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter admitted at a news conference in Washington at the time. "So we have devised a number of different approaches." They relied heavily on Mazloum's militia. [...]

The joint campaign faced sporadic challenges--menacing warnings from the Syrian government, the deployment of Russian mercenaries nearby, and constant criticism from Turkey. In November, 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Trump, who was in Florida, preparing for a round of golf with Tiger Woods, to complain about U.S. arms flowing to Kurds in the S.D.F., which Erdoğan considered a terrorist group. Surprising his aides, Trump promised to stop the shipments. Former U.S. officials familiar with the call told me that the President did not fully grasp the details, players, or regional politics of his own decision to arm the Kurds--or that it was the decision that enabled the Kurdish-led S.D.F. to liberate Raqqa. U.S. officials had to convince Trump that the weapons were essential because the war with isis was not over, a former Pentagon official told me The U.S. arms shipments to the Kurds continued.

The campaign against isis was nearly derailed again when Turkish-backed fighters invaded Afrin, one of three Kurdish cantons in northern Syria, in January, 2018. The offensive followed news that the U.S. planned to create a border force of several thousand--half from the S.D.F. and half new recruits--to better secure the Syrian borders with Turkey and Iraq. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters had passed through Turkish territory to join the caliphate. The U.S.-backed border force was designed to deal with a problem that Erdoğan had not addressed. Erdoğan countered that the U.S. was "creating a terror army" and vowed to "suffocate" it.

The Turkish-backed invasion forced Mazloum to pull S.D.F. troops away from the front line with isis, to defend Afrin--this time without U.S. air power to support them. Washington disapproved of Ankara's offensive, but Turkey was a nato ally. The S.D.F. was no match for Turkey's tanks, artillery, and warplanes. After two months, Mazloum's militia retreated. Relations soured with the United States; the offensive against isis stalled. U.S. intelligence predicted that Mazloum might even end the partnership. "We're on the two-yard line," a senior U.S. Special Forces commander told NBC News. "We could literally fall into the end zone. We're that close to total victory, to wiping out the isis caliphate in Syria. We're that close, and now it's coming apart."

The S.D.F. was also scrambling to administer and secure the region--roughly a third of Syria--that it had liberated. Towns were war-ravaged. Basic services were destroyed. Many residents had fled. In Arab areas, the S.D.F. turned to tribal sheikhs to help form new city councils. "The S.D.F. did not just clear territory. They held it," McGurk, the former lead coördinator of the campaign, told me. "They recruited locals to govern and established a permissive security environment. That's what allowed us to be in Syria with a very light U.S. footprint."

Mazloum's militia, which included a large female force, returned to the isis battlefront last fall. The final hurdle was to clear Deir Ezzor province, which is home to Syria's most valuable oil fields. In December, the S.D.F. captured Hajin and began mapping out the next two months of operations with U.S. Special Forces. Their focus was on eliminating the stubborn Islamic State pockets near the Iraqi border and stabilizing liberated areas to prevent an isis resurgence. "We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated we can't just pick up and leave," McGurk told reporters on December 11th. "We're prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring." U.S. goals, he added, "will take some time."

Six days later, Mazloum was summoned by General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. operations in the Middle East, for a video conference. The timing, at midnight in Syria, was unexpected. So was the message. "I was the first one to hear the words," Salar Malla, Mazloum's aide-de-camp and translator, told me. "Before you translate anything, you have to absorb it. I spoke the words, but I didn't believe them."

General Votel informed Mazloum that he had received a letter from the White House two hours earlier, ordering the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Votel did not know the details, he told Mazloum, but he had wanted the Kurd to hear it from him rather than from the media. "It was a surprise," Mazloum told me, at his forward operating base. "We didn't believe that in the middle of the battle, when we're fighting against isis, when we're fighting against all the others, that our partners would abandon us. To be honest, the painful point for us was that America is a great country. How could a great country behave like that and abandon its allies in the middle of the fight? And, from that time on, how are people going to trust in the Americans or partner with them in any fight in the future?"

Trump had made the decision unilaterally, U.S. officials told me. There had been no interagency review, no conferring with military brass, no discussions with the dozens of other countries in the U.S.-led coalition. Many were as surprised as Mazloum was. The pivot had been another telephone conversation with President Erdoğan. The Turkish leader asked why the U.S. needed two thousand troops in Syria if the caliphate was collapsing. Two days later, Trump tweeted, "We have defeated isis in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." The problem was that isis had not yet collapsed. It still had tens of thousands of fighters, families, and fans in pockets of the Euphrates River Valley.

In Washington, the backlash to Trump's abrupt decision was immediate. Defense Secretary James Mattis pleaded with the President to change his mind; when he didn't, Mattis resigned. So did McGurk. Even Trump's Republican allies expressed outrage. Lindsey Graham called the decision a "stain on the honor of the United States." A bipartisan group of senators appealed to the White House. "If you decide to follow through with your decision to pull our troops out of Syria, any remnants of isis in Syria will surely renew and embolden their efforts in the region," they wrote.

In a rare public statement, Mazloum also appealed to Trump, asking him to keep at least half of the two thousand troops in place until all of the Islamic State's territory was liberated. "We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us," Kobani told reporters travelling with an American military delegation. "American forces must remain beside us." Trump had once pledged to protect the S.D.F., Mazloum said. "I want him to live up to his word." In a separate conversation, he admitted to me, "We're worried about being alone again."

Mazloum did not waver, however. "Immediately, we started thinking of the phase after the American presence in Syria, and how we're going to distribute our forces and depend on our own capacity to preserve those gains," he told me. "At the end of the day, this is an internal American decision, and we cannot intervene in it. So we started thinking about how we're going to be able to fight and do policy without them."

A senior U.S. official who had worked closely with Mazloum reflected, "Never once did he not live up to exactly what he said he was going to do." The S.D.F. fought on as the United States quietly began pulling out troops and equipment. The final front line was Baghouz, the farming hamlet near the Iraqi border. It was a long slog, with repeated pauses to allow civilians, including the families of isis fighters, to leave. "We don't want the images from our last battle to be bloody," Mazloum told me. "We're not isis."

When Baghouz finally fell, on March 23rd, Mazloum hosted a small liberation ceremony at his base. "It was a great day that we celebrated with all our friends and allies," he messaged me on WhatsApp. "We are proud about what we did, that victory is not just for Kurds. It is for all humanity." Mazloum invited his American counterparts to attend. In front of the stars and stripes, a band of young Syrians dressed in red-and-gold uniforms played the American national anthem.

Posted by at April 6, 2019 8:26 AM