In his recent OpEd (“In supporting the Kurds in Syria, US has been playing fast and loose with the law," Military Times, Oct. 14, 2019), John Robinson plays the voice of reason amidst “head spinning headlines” over recent events in Syria. “The longer you play fast and loose with the law, the more you delude yourself into believing what you’re doing is OK,” he begins promisingly, but then takes what might have been a cogent discussion about congressional failure to modify the Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) and tries to apply it to a completely separate topic — the U.S. military’s partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Neither his fluid writing nor authoritative tone can save an argument flawed by factual error and incoherent logic.
“Does it matter that not likely a living soul in the current ISIS planned, authorized, or committed the 9/11 attacks, nor aided or harbored 9/11 perpetrators?” asks Robinson rhetorically, referring to the U.S. policy decision to counter ISIS in Syria, before answering himself: “Apparently, not a wit [sic].”
Not a whit indeed. I am speculating here, but back in 2014 when the Islamic State controlled almost a third of Syria and Iraq, lawmakers probably weren’t inclined to demand a linear connection to 9/11 to justify military action. In any case, the wording that an administration official used at the time in an email to the New York Times, indicates that the decision was not such a great leap as Robinson indicates:
“Based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests, the extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and ISIL’s position — supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups — that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy, the President may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the use of force against ISIL, notwithstanding the recent public split between AQ’s senior leadership and ISIL.”
A stretch, maybe, but evidently members of Congress at the time weren’t concerned that the proposed action against ISIS belonged in the category of executive military adventurism that the War Powers Act is intended to prevent, so they accepted the argument that it fell within the purview or perhaps more accurately, the intent, of the AUMF. None of this negates Robinson’s argument that the AUMF should be modified, but nullifies his claim that subsequent action against ISIS in Syria was illegal.
In any case, the administration didn’t rely on the AUMF as legal basis for supporting the SDF, as Robinson contends. The FY15 and FY16 National Defense Authorization Acts granted congressional authorization to train and lethally equip members of the Syrian opposition to combat the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. And as anyone who was involved in shepherding what was then known as the Syria Train and Equip program through the various congressional committees will tell you, this was a painstaking process involving meticulous legal scrutiny. There was nothing fast or loose about it.
As to Robinson’s point that the U.S. was on shaky legal ground in partnering with an organization “affiliated with” the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, his case is not nearly as tight as he makes it seem. While it’s clear that the PKK is listed by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), it’s less clear how much the SDF and PKK overlap. Although they may share some members, they are distinct international entities with different ideologies and goals, and separate chains of command and lines of resourcing. The United States recognizes this by not extending to the SDF various statutes covering material support to FTOs or the freezing of funds by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Even if the two groups were affiliated, there is nothing in U.S. law to prohibit the U.S. from using the SDF as a proxy force. In any case, as the British say, “needs must,” and at a time when ISIS was ingesting territory unopposed, the SDF were our only viable proxy. Now, five years later, to cite their possible PKK affiliations as the reason to break with them, seems to me to be a little disingenuous.
During those five years, the U.S. partnership with the SDF has been a success story beyond all expectation. Due largely to the SDF’s efforts, the U.S. was able to expunge the physical caliphate from Syria at an incredibly low cost in casualties, and — until two weeks ago — maintain a tenuous stability along the border region with Turkey. At every step the SDF has aligned their actions with U.S. objectives by avoiding where possible confrontation with either the Syrian Regime or Turkey, and by advancing on Raqqa, at a time when their own rear lines were threatened by both armies.
All partnerships have to come to an end sometime, but there was good reason for the U.S. to end this particular one in a more deliberate manner. Setting aside ethical concerns about the way in which the U.S. military’s precipitous withdrawal left the SDF vulnerable to a Turkish offensive (concerns which Robinson dismisses as so much “outpouring of emotion”), there are sound pragmatic reasons why this was not a good decision. Despite lacking a coherent policy in Syria to guide it, the small U.S. military presence there served useful purposes — maintaining a fragile stability, and keeping the territorial ambitions of the various factions in check. Perhaps most valuably, it was a grudgingly accepted presence that could be bargained away for the right concessions from Turkey, Russia and Syria. It was a near perfect example of what special operations forces can achieve in a volatile and politically sensitive environment. The U.S. military’s hasty departure from a shaky, but relatively calm, status quo is likely to lead to greater volatility in the region — and that is not in the U.S. national interest, however you want to look at it. Lastly, in an age of hybrid warfare, it is likely that U.S. reliance on proxy forces will become more common. Turning our backs abruptly on the SDF sends a strong message about our reliability as a partner.
And yes, the Turks are nominally a NATO ally, but, under current leadership it’s hard to imagine a more recalcitrant one. As a 19th century British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, famously said, “Nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests,”and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — by contrast with Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the SDF — has shown little enthusiasm for supporting U.S. permanent interests in the region. Having lived in Turkey as a civilian, I understand the Turks’ visceral antipathy to the PKK, but the U.S. partnership with the SDF likely tamped, rather than fostered, collaboration between the two organizations. The small U.S. presence along the Turkish border has, for the last two years, been enough to prevent the Turks from launching an offensive, and would have probably continued to do so despite the administration’s claims to the contrary.
It will be interesting to see whether the president’s dispensation to his Turkish counterpart will lead Erdogan into being more compliant. All indications are that it has instead emboldened him, and strengthened his ties with Putin. That should trouble even the most ardent proponents of isolationism.
Retaining a military presence in northern Syria afforded the United States the opportunity to broker an agreement between the various parties, remaining a player in the region at little cost. In so doing, we could have ended our partnership with the SDF in a manner that didn’t throw them in the path of a Turkish offensive. It’s not naive to expect our great nation to act with that kind of enlightened self-interest. Instead, we have lost both credibility and influence in the region, and that benefits only our adversaries.
Andrew Milburn commanded the Marine Raider Regiment and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Iraq in the counter-ISIS campaign. He retired earlier this year as the chief of staff for Special Operations Command, Central (SOCCENT). He is author of the upcoming book “When the Tempest Gathers.”
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.