Counter-terrorism expert Chuck Pfarrer, former Commander at SEAL Team SIX, about the situation in Syria and the United States
Chuck Pfarrer is a former Assault Element Commander at SEAL Team SIX, and a veteran of more than 150 combat operations in the Middle East. He has written Op Ed for the New York Times and appeared as an author and counter-terrorism expert on CNN, Fox, CSPAN2, NPR, Al Hurra, IPR, Voice of America, ABC, Sirius Media and MSNBC. Pfarrer was one of the early amateur cartographers of the Syrian Civil War, and he is an expert in counter-proliferation and global salafist jihad. He reported from Kabul and Bagram on the Afghan Air Force.
Mr Pfarrer, you have spent many years in the American special forces, you were a Navy Seal, and you are following the struggle against Islamic State very closely. How do you feel about the decision of the Trump-administration to abandon the Kurds?
Chuck Pfarrer: When the United States first intervened in the Syrian civil war, it under appreciated the fact that the struggle was not merely between the Syrian people and an oppressive dictator, but was a multi-polar struggle between half a dozen mutually antagonistic factions. During the early stages, the US fed arms into the war— and a significant amount of these weapons fell into the hands of Jihadist factions. This occurred because arms were lost or surrendered by incompetent and disorganized militias— but also because corrupt commanders sold them on the open market. The US learned nothing from its experience in the Lebanese Civil War: there are friends and enemies, and a hundred variations of each.
In some cases, American weapons, like TOW missiles, actually turned the tide of battle toward jihadi elements. Until the Kurds showed themselves to be determined fighters, and partners against salafist jihad, the US was at a loss as to whom to back. Events have shown the Kurds are not only a valiant and reliable ally, but are— by a long stretch— the most moderate and democratically inclined of all the combatants.
It is astounding to me, and other analysts, that the President would choose to turn his back on the Kurds. In my opinion this is a military blunder of the first order. Worse, the decision seems to have been taken without the advice of the joint Chiefs, or the on scene military commanders. Everyone in the nation appeared as surprised as I was.
What do you think, is Erdogan capitalizing on the chaos in Washington? Is the political process breaking down due to the fight about a possible impeachment?
Chuck Pfarrer: Other analysts realize, if the President does not, that PM Erdogan will always do what he sees as best - for himself. Erdogan forms his decisions on what is best for him politically, and his actions are all for domestic consumption. PM Erdogan’s decision to break with NATO and accept Russian S-400 air defense systems was intended to play to his nationalist base. He did this despite the fact that his air force has shot down Russian air craft, and that his own troops are in combat with Russian advisors in Idlib. Putin desires to stir the pot, and Erdogan wanted to feed red meat to the nationalist portion of his base that dislikes NATO and the US.
Edogan also accepted the S-400 systems to protect himself from his own air force— he did not forget that members of his air force turned against him in the last coup attempt.
Erdogan's decision to "establish a safe zone" in northern Syria, again, is for domestic political consumption. He deliberately conflates the Marxist terror group PKK with the YPG/J and the SDF - to prove to his base that he is fighting ‘Kurdish terrorism’. The real reason Erdogan is now acting against the YPG and SDF is that the Kurds have almost single handedly thwarted Turkey’s jihad strategy in Syria.
President Trump’s political troubles are many, and Erdogan would not be above taking what he can, while he can. The President utterly failed to grasp that abandoning the Kurds would alienate his conservative base. Many Americans who were previously pro Trump, or Trump neutral are now turning against him - and this is because he is perceived as abandoning our Kurdish allies. Not many people in the US see the Turks as an honest broker in Kurdish affairs.
"The decision to turn his back on the Kurds has already backfired on the President
How far does Trumps betrayal of the Kurds in Syria go? It seems, the Airspace over northern Syria is widely open for the Turkish airforce, this mirrors the situation during the Turkish attack on Afrin, when Russia opened the airspace for the Turks.
Chuck Pfarrer: The decision to turn his back on the Kurds was not only precipitous, and ill-advised, it has already backfired on the President. Much of his base is solidly against placing the Kurds at the mercy of the Turkish armed forces. It is not forgotten that the Turkish nation provided refuge, travel documents, medical care and logistical support for ISIL and is satellite jihad organizations. Turkey was the main recipient of oil exported by the Islamic State, and Turkey maintained free trade zones with ISIL at Jarabalas and Ras Al Ayn that supplied the Islamic State and kept it afloat. These were Erdogan’s policies, and they were carried out by the MIT (Turkish Intel) and the Turkish armed forces. These acts were concurrent and counter to NATO's efforts to eradicate IS in Syria.
The President of the US has no friend in PM Erdogan. By allowing the Turkish air force to bomb Kurdish civilian targets, the outrage of the US people will soon, and permanently affix itself to President Trump. I find it incredible that Mr. Trump did not foresee this. Erdogan’s promises of ‘moderation’ are worthless. Kurdish civilians are already perishing under Turkish artillery and rocket attacks, and the Turkish Air Force is bombing Raqqas as we speak.
Can you tell us something about the sentiment in the army about this unfolding tragedy: how are the feelings within the troops on the field in Syria, within the Soldiers who were risking their lives defeating SISI together with the Kurds? And, and how are the Kurds viewed within the American forces?
Chuck Pfarrer: There is a wall between the armed forces and politics in the US. As members of the armed forces we take an oath to support the constitution - not the president; but the constitution afirms the President, as Commander in Chief. The President in his role as C in C directs his subordinate commanders. The men and women in Syria take orders from duly constituted authority, and will carry out lawfully given orders whether they agree with them or not.
The Commander and Chief is advised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with whom he can consult in matters of strategy and tactics. It is not clear that he even talked to the Pentagon before he made this decision. I’m sure that this decision disappointed, and shocked, the President’s military advisors. But you’ll not hear any military officers voice opinions counter to the president’s orders. And it is not their place to do so. In the United States the military is commanded by the President. As long as his orders are lawful and lawfully given, they will be obeyed.
Thus said, I know that within the US military our Kurdish allies are seen as not only valiant fighters, but as the best hope for the Kurdish people. Soldiers cannot help but be disappointed, but orders are orders, and will be obeyed.
It seems, the situation is quite dramatic then. CNN and Fox-News are reporting about members of the Special Forces venting their disgust to reporters. There is a "horrible situation" unfolding in Syria, Turkey is in breach of everything "it agreed to". One soldier even said, he is "ashamed" for the first time. How unusual is it for members of the Special Forces to go to the public while being still deployed?
Chuck Pfarrer: It is highly unusual for a deployed soldier, sailor, airman or marine to ever comment publically. It shows the level of confusion, and disgust felt by front line troops. Trust to a front line combatant is everything - a matter of life and death. It's impossible for them to see this as anything less than a betrayal - and they realize that by capriciously abandoning an ally the United States has harmed its own reputation.
"The Turks will always back jihadist elements"
Let's talk about the effects of this betrayal on the fight against islamic Extremism and against ISIS. The Islamic States seems not to be entirely defeated, as the recent attack in Raqqa show, which were carried out shortly before the Turkish invasion started. And, let’s be frank, Turkey was one of the prime supporters of ISIS (this is the prime reason for the anti-ISIS alliance between the US and the Kurds). So, will all the sacrifices in the fight against Islamism be in vain, is there a real danger of IS making a comeback?
Chuck Pfarrer: There is no doubt that Turkey supported ISIS, provided intelligence to it, supported it with travel documents, visas, medical care, and in many cases, provided it with air reconnaissance, UAV strikes and artillery support. Turkey was the chief customer for the oil ISIL extracted from captured wells - and the millions Turkey paid to the Islamic State continue to fund terror globally. We spoke of the Syrian Civil War as a multi-polar conflict. The Turks will always back jihadist elements, if only to contribute to the woes of their enemy Bashir Assad. Erdogan’s aim is regional dominance - the first step toward that goal is making sure Syria into a failed state. Erdogan will utilize all means, fair and foul to achieve chaos in Syria.
Let's reveal Erdogan’s "Safe Zone" for what it is— an action against the Kurds, and a transparent attempt to "Arabize" what has long been Kurdish territory. Erdogan's plan to settle 6M displaced Syrian Arabs in a northern "buffer" is on its face preposterous. The area is devoid of water resources, civil infrastructure and food resources. You can also be sure that should any such resettlement occur, Turkey will abandon these unfortunates to starvation and the depredations of the same jihadis the Erdogan is backing now.
What is Erdogan exactly planing in northern Syria? It looks like a giant Concentration Camp for refugees, some kind o a giant ghetto, guarded by his Islamist henchman. He is even trying to get European, especially German funding for this undertaking.
Chuck Pfarrer: Turkey's Jihadist gambit in Syria was foiled, largely, by the Kurds. And it is therefore natural that turkey would seek to destroy the Kurds. Erdogan's plan to dump 6M displaced Syrian refuges in the Safe Zone is absurd. There is no civil infrastructure, no water resources, no agriculture. The area chose for this Arab resettlement has be Kurdish since time immemorial. It is a transparent fraud.
Let's talk geopolitic shortly. Do you see any reason why this move would serve the American interests in the region? IOr, is he just motivated by domestic calculus, in order to placate his isolationist followers?
Chuck Pfarrer: There is absolutely no short or long term benefit to the US abandoning the Kurds. I can draw no other conclusion that Trump came to this decision on his own, and for reasons of his own. No military officer or geo-political analyst with whom I have spoken thinks this is a good idea. As far as domestic calculus, this is already blowing back on the president. At present a bi-partisan congressional resolution is being drawn up for the president to reverse his decision. He has gained nothing by this decision - and probably lost more than he’ll ever regain.
"No one, conservative or liberal, approves of his offensive against the Kurds"
There was harsh criticism of Trumps decision to abandon the Kurds in Washington - from both parties. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely the president would act entirely on his own. The Nato-Chairman defended Erdogan's actions recently. Tell us, are there supporters within Washington, can you locate them?
Chuck Pfarrer: I know of no one in Washington who is a fan of Erdogan. His thugs attacked American demonstrators in front of the Turkish embassy in Washington in 2017. This won him no friends in America. Erdogan’s paranoid ravings blaming Fethullah Gülen for the military coup further lowered his poll numbers, and these again circled the drain when he accepted Putin's S-400 missiles.
No one, conservative or liberal, approves of his offensive against the Kurds. I’d go so far as to say that Erdogan has done all he can do to endanger Turkey’s membership in NATO. And it is still possible, despite the president’s erratic actions, that the US will intervene militarily against Turkey if it demonstrably attempts genocide against the Kurds.
"The most colossal blunder in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War"
It seems, Turkish Islamism is on the rise due to Erdogan's ruthless exploitation of the geopolitical rivality between Russia and the US in the region. Ankara managed to extort concessions from Moscow (the invasion of Afrin) and now from Washington, by threatening to move to the other geopolitical camp. Don't you think there should be some basic understanding and cooperation between east and west - at least concerning the threat of radical Islamism and Turkeys expansionism?
Chuck Pfarrer: It's easy to seek a bi-polar solution, but the problem and the War is multi-polar. Iran backs Assad, even going so far as to declare Alawais as orthodox Sh’ias. Iran's goal is a land bridge to the Levant, as a means of power projection toward Israel.
Russia backs Assad for several reasons, one, The Assad dynasty owes billions of dollars for the decades worth of Soviet and Russian military equipment; arms , missiles, artillery, ballistic missiles, ships and aircraft. A Russian imperative is a war water Naval Base, and Tartus is now the Russian's largest naval facility outside the mother land.
Though Putin could have long ago brokered a pax russos in Syria, even allowing Assad to transfer power - he will never do so. Billions are at stake, as is a key Russian port and Base in the Med and Middle East.
No NATO member has ever done more to jeopardize its membership than Turkey. It has never been a good fit. In terms of human rights, civil rights, press freedoms and religious liberty it stands alone in NATO. It manifests none of the alliances values, and operates in all cases for its own interests first and foremost.
Let us look back a little bit. George W. Bush started the disastrous Invasion of Iraq with the stated goal of transforming the whole region into a Democracy. We know how this attempt to "export" Democracy ended. Now, another US-President is helping to destroy an indigenous attempt to build up some sort of grassroots-democracy in Syria.
Chuck Pfarrer: It is incredible, and unfathomable why the US would abandon an ally who is the last best hope for democracy in Syria. I see this as the most colossal blunder in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Its repercussions will be felt for decades in the Mid East and Beyond.
In your opinion, is there anything the public can do to support the Kurds in this uneven struggle?
Chuck Pfarrer: The President is vulnerable. US citizens can, and should tell their representatives in congress that they strongly oppose the president's abandonment of out Kurdish allies. It's said in the US that all politics are local. People can make their voices heard through their congressional representatives, and pressure the president to rescind this ill thought out decision.