With fire over Syria, smoke obscures Washington

October 23, 2019

By Dennis Murphy

Johns Hopkins SAIS is a school that cannot be divorced from the world it studies. This was made clear when President Trump announced the withdrawal of American forces from parts of Northern Syria. Within minutes, professors were receiving calls from media outlets requesting comment. Many professors wrote lengthy articles describing their analysis of the situation, while some traveled out of DC in order to speak with other experts and academics about these events in person.

Mara Karlin, the director of the Strategic Studies program, passed along an article she wrote in late September. In this article, she remarked quite pointedly that “precipitously redeploying U.S. troops from Syria, particularly without consulting key coalition members,” would be among the key missteps that the Trump administration should avoid.

Daniel Serwer, the director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs, conveyed his thoughts via an article he authored on October 17. Serwer stated that the situation in Syria was “predictable and predicted.” Serwer believes the United States should have reduced its military commitments in the Middle East to a sustainable level, and done so in a way that left no power vacuums that other powers could exploit. He expressed his view that reasonable compromise is what is required in relation to the situation, but that such reasonableness is impossible to achieve under President Trump.

In an interview with the SAIS Observer, SAIS Professor Seth Jones, who teaches a course covering counterinsurgency, stated that the decision to withdraw troops raises serious questions regarding our reliability as an ally in the region. Jones feels that the damage done to our reputation cannot be underestimated. The Kurds “put a lot on the line, including their lives” as our allies, Jones said. The Russians have positioned themselves in former U.S. strongholds in the area, as televised scenes show Russian soldiers moving into recently abandoned American bases.

Jones expects that the war against ISIS is far from over, complicated further by the presence of al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups in the region.Jones stated that over 50,000 jihadi fighters are estimated to be in Northern Syria, and that ISIS is pursuing a strategy of using the remote landscape of the desert to rebuild and reorganize their forces in the Northern, Eastern and Southern regions of the country. If a resurgence occurs, Syria has the potential to become another version of Afghanistan, accompanied by all of the complications that entails regarding refugees, combat and humanitarian aid.

These events have produced a demoralizing effect for many students and professors on campus. Middle East Studies professor Camille Pecastaing stated that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops  “infuriated most American analysts of the region and politicians, not to mention their counterparts in Europe.” While it is unlikely that SAIS courses will be changed in response, patterns of US engagement in the region have altered students’ desired career paths, with a notable shift of Middle East Concentrations moving from a career in government to the private sector since 2010. However, Pecastaing said, “A curriculum of regional studies cannot be defined by the actions of American administrations.” As of Monday, October 20, Pecastaing had not heard any favorable outlooks from students on the decision to withdraw from parts of northern Syria.

In an interview with Alia Awadallah, the second year Strategic Studies student took a highly critical stance against the actions of the Trump administration and condemned Turksih military action along the border. In Awadallah’s view, withdrawing from northern Syria serves no strategic purpose, and instead risks the danger of ethnic cleansing occurring in Syria. Similarly to Jones, Awadallah believes that the decision has deeply damaged the U.S. reputation in the region, giving way to a pattern of using allies to the benefit of the U.S. before discarding them.

For Awadallah, the issue is not that there may be a resurgence of ISIS in the region; she believes that those who were susceptible to radicalization have already been radicalized. Rather, the issue for her is the symbolic victory in the civil war for President Assad that these actions represent. As long as the Syrian Democratic Forces remained active in the region, there was a sense that the war was not yet over, and that Assad’s forces had not won. Following the withdrawal of US forces, Russia, Iran and Syria have already positioned themselves to best take advantage of Kurdish helplessness. 

Not all SAIS students were of the same mind, however. One student interviewed by the SAIS Observer, Alperen Eken, believes Turkish action in Northeastern Syria may not be as bad as it might appear. Eken views Turkish actions as predominantly a counterterrorism operation against YPG forces, a primarily Kurdish group labeled as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government. This is a move with “strong support domestically,” Eken said. As for the possibility that Turkish actions may lead to a resurgence of ISIS, he argued that Turkey has “suffered enough” at the hands of ISIS, has “no intention to release any ISIS fighters,” and “everyone knows that Turkey does not support… ISIS.”

Eken stressed that YPG forces in the Kurdish region have “really strong connections with the PKK,” an organization broadly identified as a terrorist organization.Turkey has never appreciated the close U.S. relationship with YPG forces, and has feared its vulnerability to attack by YPG training camps. Eken feels strongly that Turkish action is strategically defensive in nature.

Since these interviews took place, Turkey has begun meeting with Russian officials in order to work together to remove the Kurdish military presence along the Turkish-Syrian border. Additionally, there has been renewed migration out of Northeast Syria into neighboring Iraq, as individuals flee under the presumed threat of violence.

The SAIS Observer will continue to track these events closely.