Just after Putin hosted trilateral talks on Syria and the Middle East in Sochi involving Russia, Iran, and Turkey, President Trump spent part of his Friday after Thanksgiving on the phone with Turkey’s Erdogan. While the two discussed Syria and other regional issues, it appears they broached the delicate and contentious topic of US support to Syrian Kurdish fighters (namely, the Kurdish YPG, which forms the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces). The call came amidst a flurry of diplomatic activity over the Middle East driven by the Kremlin, and follows a lengthy Trump-Putin phone call on Tuesday.
Members of the Kurdish YPG, Mint Press
Though the details of the call are still unclear, Trump outlined what was to be generally discussed in a tweet, and said this morning, “Will be speaking to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East. I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!”
Will be speaking to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East. I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 24, 2017
Though not verified by the US side, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Trump told Erdogan during Friday’s call that the US will cease supplying weapons to the Syrian Kurdish fighters, according to the AP. Turkey has long considered Syrian Kurdish militant groups to be terrorists, and Erdogan reportedly insisted at the Sochi summit that Syrian Kurds be excluded from all negotiations over the future of Syria on the grounds that they have links to the PKK. However, it is unlikely that a lasting political settlement for Syria can be negotiated and successfully held without Syrian Kurdish input.
But should Turkey’s current claims that Trump vowed to end US military support to Syrian Kurds be confirmed, it would be a major development impacting the lasting arrangement of Syria and the war’s outcome. “Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago,” Cavusoglu said at a news conference shortly after the call. And Erdogan presented an upbeat assessment of the call, tweeting shortly after: “I had a fruitful phone conversation with the U.S. President Donald Trump today.”
Meanwhile Trump’s reference to $6 trillion appears to be related to a Nov. 8 Wall Street Journal story on a new study from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, which calculates that the cost to US taxpayers for American troop deployment and wars in the broader Middle East – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria – is about $5.6 trillion. Could a major pull-out and disengagement from Syria and other parts of the region be on the table (consistent with Trump’s “America first” non-interventionist campaign promises)?
We previously explained that that US strategy and support to the Kurds was predicated on the Pentagon forcing itself into a place of affecting the Syrian war’s outcome and final apportionment of power: the best case scenario for American power and planners in the region being permanent US bases under a Syrian Kurdish federated zone with favored access to Syrian oil doled out by Kurdish partners.
But it appears the Kurds may already be cutting separate deals and are in secret talks with Syria and Russia, which means a US exit from Syria could be forced sooner rather than later. According to University of Oklahoma Middle East expert Joshua Landis, the Kurds and the Syrian government are now sharing oil revenues from disputed oil fields controlled by Kurdish groups in some parts of Syria’s east.
Landis confirmed last week that “the Syrian gov, Syrian Kurds, and Arab tribes share oil revenues already. SAG gets 65% of revenues in Rmeilan field. PYD gets 20% (powerful Kurdish confederation in Syria’s north: the Democratic Union Party). Arab forces get 15%.” Landis also posted the question, “is this the model for a future deal between Kurds, Arabs, and the Syrian Government in northern Syria?”
Should the White House confirm a commitment of US disengagement from the SDF with a concrete timeline, it would represent a monumental shift in policy, and would further ensure that Russia remains in the driver’s seat concerning the future of Syria and the Levant.