WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) visited Turkey on Friday for extended talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the US withdrawal from Syria that President Donald Trump announced following a December 14 phone conversation with Erdogan.
Graham’s visit appears to have advanced major changes to the original understanding between the two presidents, in which US forces were to leave Syria within 30 days to be replaced by Turkish troops.
In a press conference on Saturday, “after lengthy meetings with Erdogan,” Graham called “for a slower, smarter withdrawal of American troops from Syria to avoid setting off a broader war and a nightmare for Turkey,” The New York Times reported.
And speaking to the Turkish broadcaster, “TRT World,” while in Ankara, Graham affirmed, “The Kurds are well-thought of in America.”
Graham also held a press conference on Saturday, in which he suggested that the US-led coalition could maintain some military presence in eastern Syria that would include a smaller number of US soldiers, as well as troops from other Coalition members.
That would be consistent with the statement of French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday that France would continue to keep forces in Syria and Iraq for the coming year.
Over the past two weeks, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has met twice in Ankara with Turkish officials.
Moreover, Dunford held a third meeting with his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday in Brussels on the sidelines of a NATO conference. The two officers discussed Syria, including “the withdrawal of US ground forces” from that country “in a deliberate and coordinated manner,” according to a readout of the meeting from the Joint Staff Spokesperson.
On Saturday, Graham described current US thinking about Syria, including that of the US military.
The US has 2,000 Special Forces troops in Syria. “They could be withdrawn and replaced with a new mission and a smaller force,” The New York Times reported Graham as saying.
The Times also explained that in Dunford’s thinking, the US could keep control of the air space in eastern Syria, while other Coalition members would continue working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been America’s main partner in the war in Syria against the Islamic State.
Given Dunford’s extended discussions with Turkish military officials, one might infer that they have accepted the broad outlines of the US thinking—although it is very different from Erdogan’s public posture.
To address Turkey’s concerns, the US plan calls for moving the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which provide the military leadership for the SDF, away from the Turkish border, while taking back the heavy equipment the US has provided, Graham said.
Turkey maintains that the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US, European Union, and Turkey all consider a terrorist organization.
In speaking with TRT World, Graham explained that he has long shared that view. Graham blamed the Obama administration, which opted to work with the YPG, as the US expanded its war against the Islamic State into Syria in early 2015.
Indeed, the late Sen. John McCain (R, Arizona), Graham’s close friend and associate on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned two years ago of the “train wreck” coming, if the administration did not do more to address Turkish objections to the YPG.
In a March 2017 hearing with Gen. Joseph Votel, then Commander of CENTCOM, McCain cautioned, “I’m not sure that the administration recognizes how seriously, particularly, President Erdogan views the threat that the Kurds pose.”
McCain was a long-time friend of the Kurdish people, but took exception to the alliance with the YPG. “Unless something changes, I see a train wreck here,” McCain told Votel then.
On Saturday, Graham said, “Gen. Dunford has a plan that he’s working on with the Turkish military” to address Turkey’s concerns about the YPG.
In addition to moving the YPG away from the Turkish border and recovering equipment, the US would also deal with the situation in the Syrian city of Manbij and implement the so-called “Manbij roadmap,” which calls for the YPG to leave the city.
That agreement between Washington and Ankara was reached already in June of last year, but Turkish officials repeatedly complained it had not been implemented.
So, as Graham told “TRT World,” the US needs to “fix the problem for Turkey,” caused by its alliance with the YPG.
“How do you do that?,” he continued. “You start with Manbij. You get all the YPG elements” out of the city. “You let a governing council be created that’s acceptable to Turkey and the people of Manbij.”
Once that is done, Manbij can serve as a model, and “then you can start talking about a buffer zone,” Graham explained.
A buffer zone in northern Syria was first proposed by Turkey during the Obama administration and was repeated by Trump in a tweet as recently as last Sunday. Maps appeared in the Turkish press suggesting the rough dimensions of that area.
But who would police it? Who would administer it? Who would guarantee that the Islamic State did not return, let alone ensure that Turkish forces and the YPG did not fight each other?
Graham’s statement suggests that plans to create a buffer zone have been postponed, until appropriate political arrangements have been made.
As Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and now a Senior Fellow at Soran University, noted to Kurdistan 24, the Turkish military did not want to occupy Syria, nor even create a buffer zone, if it faced armed opposition from the YPG.
The understanding between Trump and Erdogan—US troops would leave and Turkish forces come in—was never going to work, he suggested.
“That’s what happens, when leaders speak without proper staff work,” Davis said.
He also suggested that if the US could really achieve the ideas outlined by Graham, it would offer a great deal to the people of eastern Syria.
It could be comparable to the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq, when the extended stalemate with Saddam Hussein’s regime allowed the political and economic development of the Kurdistan Region.
“For the foreseeable future,” Davis said, “eastern Syria would enjoy self administration, if,” he said, stressing that word, “the US, and the others involved, can make it work.”
Despite the controversial nature of Graham’s remarks, the Senator’s discussions in Ankara appear to have been amicable.
On Friday evening, he accompanied Erdogan and his wife to a concert in which the Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, played his new work, “The Trojan Sonata.”
A renowned, world-famous musician, Say who has played with the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Symphony Orchestra, was a strong critic of Erdogan.
In 2013, he received a 10-month suspended jail sentence for tweets deemed insulting to Islam, although the sentence was overturned two years later.
One such post mocked a short—22 second—call to prayer. “Why such haste?” the pianist had tweeted, “Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki [alcohol] on the table?”