ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - A retired United States Air Force intelligence officer and former US military attaché in Syria told Kurdistan 24 in an interview that the decision by US president Donald Trump to leave Syria is a mistake.
Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, whose experience in the Middle East also includes tours of duty with the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is currently a military analyst for CNN.
“I think it is a mistake. The SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] just took the town of Hajin from ISIS after three months of heavy fighting and significant casualties,” he said to Kurdistan 24.
“This was the last ISIS stronghold in Syria and paved the way for the SDF to completely control the middle Euphrates Valley. That has been the US goal - support the SDF with air, artillery, intelligence, special operations, logistics, etc. - until ISIS was removed from the country,” he added.
“Normally, you would think that would be an opportune time to start withdrawing American forces.”
The timeline for Syria, he said, “was simple - the removal of ISIS territory. The Kurds, well actually, the SDF, is and was on the verge of doing just that. With the fall of the last ISIS stronghold of Hajin, we were close to that goal. Now that the Kurds will stop fighting ISIS and focus on defending themselves from the Turks, that goal is slipping from our grasp.”
The YPG “will fight”
Francona went on to say that the Kurds will face backlash for its alliance with the US, after president Trump’s now infamous Dec. 14 conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The Kurds will pay a price for supporting us. No sooner did the President end his phone call with Erdogan and make his announcement that the Turks began mobilizing forces along the eastern portion of the Syrian border,” he said.
“If the Turks mount an incursion into northern Syria to attack the YPG, the YPG will fight. Of course, the Kurds do not have heavy artillery, aircraft, or armor, and will suffer heavy casualties,” he added.
He argued, however, that Turkey might then end up finding itself in a guerrilla war it is not prepared to fight. “They can't control the Kurds in southern Turkey - do they think northern Syria will be any easier?”
Moreover, Francona said that the continuing, unnecessary, and unhelpful actions by “our supposed NATO ally Turkey complicate leaving the Kurds without some American troops as a buffer (or tripwire) against the Turks.”
“I fear that no matter what Erdogan promised President Trump, he will mount an incursion into northern Syria under the guise of attacking terrorists. He believes the YPG and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] are one and the same,” he added.
“He went so far as to make the ludicrous claim that Turkish forces would move into Syria to protect "his brother Kurds" from the YPG.”
France to continue support
Nevertheless, he said he believes that other allies, namely France, will continue to support the Kurds with troops in Syria.
“I hope the US, adhering to the President's orders, will continue air and artillery support from across the border in Iraq. That will work only as long as the Turks do not move into northern Syria. At that point, the SDF will stop fighting ISIS and redeploy to defend their territory,” he added.
Nevertheless, he says that IS will still remain a threat, morphing into an insurgency - more so in Iraq than Syria. “We need to be part of the solution. Leaving Syria does not help.”
Role of Russia
In addition, he said that it’s still unclear if Russia will help the Syrian Kurds to retain some autonomy from Damascus and to fend off a Turkish attack in coordination with Damascus since Russia has a vested interest in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Reports suggest that the Kurds are in talks with the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow and the Russian army at Hmeimim Air Base in Syria.
“So I am not sure that [Russia] will want to push Bashar into a deal like that. Bashar has stated on numerous occasions that he intends to reassert control over all of Syria, and that the Kurds will not have an autonomous region akin to that in Iraq.”
“That said, the Kurds have approached the Russians for some protection from the Turks - this is more likely, but I can't give you an estimate of how likely.”
Nevertheless, Russia recently stated that US-led Syrian territories should come under the control of the Syrian government, not of Turkey.
“Even though the Russians are growing closer to the Turks,” he concluded, “I think they prefer that the Turks stay in Turkey and let the Syrians retake control of the north.”
Editing by John J. Catherine