Jim Hanson: To halt fighting between Turkey and Kurds in Syria and prevent return of ISIS, US must do THIS

Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria to attack Kurdish forces – following President Trump’s decision last week to withdraw U.S. troops from the border area between the two nations – has created a chaotic nightmare that must not continue.

So far, the fighting has sent more than 130,000 refugees fleeing from their homes in northern Syria and has resulted in an undetermined number of casualties from Turkish air strikes and fighting on the ground.

President Trump is right to say U.S. troops should not continue fighting endless wars in the greater Middle East, but his abrupt decision to withdraw troops needs to be reconsidered to keep the fighting and bloodshed from getting even worse.


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Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on “Fox News Sunday” that in addition to the few dozen American troops withdrawn earlier from near the Syria-Turkey border, the remaining roughly 1,000 U.S. troops in northern Syria will soon withdraw and move to the southern part of the country.

This new withdrawal could allow Turkish forces to go deeper into Syria and leave oil-rich areas open to conquest by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad – or worse, by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Kurdish forces suffered an estimated 12,000 combat casualties and played a key role in helping American forces dismantle the ISIS caliphate and defeat the jihadist force.


A major fear now is that as Kurdish fighters engage in combat with Turkish forces, roughly 11,000 captured ISIS fighters will get free, enabling the terrorists to reconstitute as a dangerous military force. The Kurds have been guarding the ISIS prisoners on behalf of the U.S. and European countries that have refused to allow their return.

And in another troubling development, the Kurds in Syria said Sunday that Syrian government forces have agreed to help them halt Turkey’s advance. That could lead to fighting between Turkey, Syria and Russia, which supports the Syrian regime in its ongoing civil war.

So what should the Trump administration do now?

I’m not arguing for an indefinite U.S. troop presence in Syria. But we need one last burst of strength and energy to ensure we can leave without creating another version of the same problem – a resurgence of ISIS terrorist forces – that brought us into Syria in the first place.

First, the U.S. needs to demand a ceasefire by Turkey and impose immediate sanctions against Turkey while the fighting continues. The Turkish government headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has violated the spirit and substance of any acquiescence President Trump gave allowing Turkish forces to secure their border with Syria. Erdogan said Sunday that his forces now control nearly 70 square miles of northern Syria. Turkey must be forced to stop its horrific actions, including attacks on civilians.

Second, the U.S. should work with allies to open refugee camps outside the Syrian territory controlled by Turkey. Kurds and others fleeing for their lives as Turkish forces invade need a safe haven.

Third, we should announce a limit to how far into Syria we will allow Turkish forces to go. This means establishing a no-fly and no-drive zone for Turkish forces to limit their advance into Syria. The U.S. can enforce the no-fly zone. We should give Kurdish and allied forces enough weapons and munitions to enforce the no-drive zone.

Fourth, the Trump administration should seek approval of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Turkey’s war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

While we should not stay in Syria for many years, we must not cede the battlefield to our enemies. ISIS is defeated but not dead. The last thing we need is for the terrorist group to once again seize territory and establish a new caliphate.

President Trump is absolutely correct when he says we can’t deploy U.S. troops all over the world every time evil rears its ugly head. We must be smart, sparing, direct and deadly when we decide to use military force.

President Ronald Reagan said it best when he called for “peace through strength.” Trump has added the modifier of America First. We can pursue both goals, as long as we remember that without strength we can’t have peace.

Since he began running for president in the 2016 campaign, Trump has said he wants our troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. It’s good to see a candidate keep his campaign promises. But the timing and execution must be undertaken carefully and gradually.

Turkey has been threatening to move into northern Syria for several years now to oppose Kurdish forces allied with Kurds in Turkey who seek their own state and who Turkey labels as terrorists.

Part of U.S. planning for our eventual withdrawal from Syria has involved figuring out what to do about Turkey’s insistence on a buffer zone to remove what it considers safe havens for Kurdish separatists on the Syrian border.

We have been unable to get both the Turks and Kurds to agree on setting up a buffer zone, and eventually this led to Erdogan saying he was going to move his forces into Syria regardless of U.S. opposition.

President Trump decided to do what he could with a bad situation and declared he was removing U.S. troops from this border region in accordance with his previous intentions. The rationale that we were only there to defeat ISIS and should not stay indefinitely is entirely true. But the current circumstances and the war crimes Turkey is committing in Syria require a fresh look at U.S. strategy.

Because the Kurds have played a major role in our success against ISIS, we owe them gratitude and some level of concern for their safety.

However, Turkey is America’s NATO ally and if we are forced to choose between the Kurds and Turkey we must lean to the side of Turkey.

Turkey has hardly been a model ally. The government refused to let us move U.S. troops through Turkey into northern Iraq back in 2003. Things have gotten progressively worse, culminating in Turkey buying Russian air defense systems and getting booted from the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program.

Even so, if we abandon efforts to fix our relationship with Turkey we will hand Russia a strategic ally in a region where we have few friends. We also have 5,000 airmen at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, along with several dozen nuclear weapons.

For all these reasons, Erdogan understands America doesn’t want to turn Turkey from an ally into an adversary.


When President Trump announced in 2018 that U.S. forces we were going to leave Syria, the Security Studies Group, which I head, was asked to put together a Syria End Game plan that gave Turkey a buffer zone, but also gave the Kurds a security zone and protected the oil regions of Syria from Iran and the Assad regime ruling Syria.

Our end game plan warned: “Removing U.S. forces now without creating a framework for security and rebuilding would allow Russia and Iran to control the majority of Syria and Turkey to take the Northern regions. We must convince Turkey to avoid a separate peace and invite them and our other allies from the region to create an international protectorate in the Sunni regions and the northern tier of Syria.”

The current situation is playing out just as we foresaw, with an added element of war crimes and ethnic cleansing by the forces Turkey has loosed on northern Syria, as well as ISIS prisoners escaping.


It’s tempting to say America should just wash its hands of involvement in Syria and the greater Middle East. But as the world’s most powerful nation and leader of the free world, we cannot simply walk away from our international responsibilities.

A middle path between staying in Syria for decades and pulling out in a few weeks must be found for our own interests and for the interests of our allies in the region.