David L.
Monday, January 6, 2020

By Ken Blackwell and David L. Phillips

The killing of Qasem Soleimani is a seismic event with huge ramifications across the Middle East and worldwide. It underscores the need for a new approach in Iraq and the region. To salvage something from its invasion and occupation of Iraq, the U.S. should focus on the Kurds.

The Shiite-led Government of Iraq (GoI) has strongly protested the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Iraqi rage will intensify, putting U.S. troops and personnel at risk. The Iraqi parliament will debate a resolution to evict U.S. troops.

The spasm of violence is a reality check: Iraq is a failed state under Iran’s control. Iraqis are only unified by their hatred of America. The Kurds are the only friends we have.

How did Iraq get to this point? America’s failure to stand with the Iraqi Kurds created a gap that Iran has filled.

The U.S. brokered Iraq’s constitution in 2005. However, Baghdad refused to implement articles favorable to the Kurds. The Obama administration demurred when it should have pushed harder to uphold Kurdish interests. Baghdad’s failure, and America’s acquiescence, left the Kurds little choice but to initiate a process putting Iraqi Kurdistan on the path to independence.

Though 93% voted to disassociate from Baghdad in September 2017, the U.S. failed to support the national aspirations of Iraqi Kurds. It turned a blind eye when Iranian-backed militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs), occupied the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and evicted the Kurdish governor. The current crisis arose when PMUs, the same Khataib Hezb’allah militias who seized Kirkuk and stomped on the Kurdistan flag, attacked U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria last week.

After repeated provocations, the U.S. responded with air strikes that killed 24 militia members. Tensions intensified with the killing of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of Kataib Hezb’allah.

The U.S. has a big stake in Iraq, having sacrificed thousands of lives and spent trillions. In light of volatile conditions that exist today, how can Washington preserve its position and interests?

A direct line can be drawn between U.S. policy towards Iraq and Iran’s aggression. Previous policies under successive administrations have marginalized the U.S. and made Iran ascendant.

Qasem Soleimani was testing U.S. resolve. In 2019, the Quds Force seized oil tankers in the Persian Gulf; shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz; and bombed Abqaiq, a major Saudi oil processing plant. Khataib Hezb’allah’s recent aggression was intended to provoke a response. Qasem Soleimani sought to turn popular protests over Iran’s role in the country, during which more than 500 people were killed, into anti-American demonstrations. Protesters chanted “death to America” and demanded that U.S. forces leave the country. Rage and popular protests are likely to intensify after the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.

America should reconsider its strategically flawed and morally defunct “one Iraq policy.” Recent events affirm America’s military superiority. At the same time, they underscore America’s irrelevance and diminished influence. In light of recent developments, the U.S. should pivot and support Kurdish national aspirations.

In Iraq and other countries where Kurds reside, Kurds are critical to peace and stability. A regional approach, focusing on the Kurds, would secure U.S. interests in Iraq and the region.

Candidate Trump pledged to withdraw from “endless wars” of the Middle East. He focused on bringing home U.S. troops from Iraq and Syria. However, his plan was delayed by the rise of ISIS.

Kurdish valor helped defeat the caliphate. Iraqi Kurds helped liberate Mosul. In Syria, 11,000 Kurds died and 23,000 were wounded fighting ISIS at America’s behest. When President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Iran responded by ratcheting up operations against the U.S.

U.S. influence is diminished without boots on-the-ground. Iran, Russia, and Turkey shaped a UN-sponsored constitutional committee to kick-start negotiations on ending Syria’s civil war. Kurdish political parties, whose armed forces gained control over more than 30 percent of Syria’s territory fighting ISIS, were excluded. Sustainable peace is impossible without the Kurds, rendering the committee an exercise in futility.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan also took advantage of U.S. ambivalence. Erdogan views the Syrian Kurds as an extension of the PKK, an armed rebel group fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey, resulting in 40,000 deaths and millions displaced since the 1980s. The PKK wants U.S. mediation, but Erdogan rejects the participation of third parties.

Erdogan uses the conflict to justify draconian policies towards the Kurds and other oppositionists. His course has marginalized America’s influence, undermined Turkey’s democracy, and directed Turkey into Russia’s embrace.

Blood knows no borders. Just as conflict is transnational, peacemaking requires a regional approach.

James Jeffrey serves as Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria. Though Jeffrey is skilled and experienced, he is working with one hand tied behind his back. Current U.S. policy limits his ability to maneuver diplomatically. The killing of Soleimani and Muhandis will make his job even harder.

The Iraqi Parliament is on the verge of censuring the Trump administration and evicting U.S. forces. As the U.S. redeploys to Iraqi Kurdistan, it will need a legal basis for basing troops there. As Iraq becomes more violent, the U.S. might need to recognize Iraqi Kurdistan and an independent and sovereign state.

To manage the intricacies of U.S. policy towards the Kurds in Iraq and the region, President Trump should appoint a “Special Envoy for Kurdish Issues”. The envoy’s activities would be based on the recognition that Kurdish and U.S. interests align. Instead of placating our adversaries, the U.S. should support its friends.

Ken Blackwell is the former award-winning United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He is a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Her served as a Senior Adviser working on Kurdish issues at the State Department during the Bush administration. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.

Evangelicals for Justice
David L.
Thursday, January 2, 2020

By David L. Phillips

Devotion and sacrifice are fundamental to faith. As Evangelicals gather in Miami on January 3 to launch “Evangelicals for Trump”, we reflect on these values and their current relevance.

The engagement of Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State exemplified devotion and sacrifice. At America’s behest, more than 11,000 Kurds died and 23,000 were wounded vanquishing the ISIS caliphate, the epicenter of evil in the world today. After the Kurds helped destroy the caliphate, President Donald J. Trump gave Turkey and its Islamist mercenaries a green light to invade and occupy the historic Kurdish and Christian homeland in Syria.

The betrayal of Kurds recalls Matthew 26:47-56

“While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.  Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.’ And he came up to Jesus at once and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ And he kissed him.  Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you came to do.’ Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.”

Trump’s embrace of the Kurds was the kiss of death. Trump also turned a blind eye on Turkey's killing of Christians in Syria -- Armenians, Syriacs, and Chaldeans.

Shame upon him who betrays the faithful.

While the First Amendment guarantees the right to debate Trump’s suitability for office, there can be no debate that his actions in Syria caused hundreds to die and thousands to suffer.

Mr. Phillips served as Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the State Department during the Bush administration. He is currently Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columba University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.

The Grotesque Savagery of Turkey's Mercenaries
David L.
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

By David L. Phillips

A Kurdish woman fled Turkish troops and their Islamist mercenaries when Turkey launched an unprovoked attack on the City of Afrin, a Kurdish community in northern Syria, on Jan. 20, 2018. The woman was running hand-in-hand with her young daughter when a missile obliterated the girl. The mother held onto her arm — all that was left of her child.

Afrin’s Kurdish defenders were no match for Turkish warplanes and Syrian Arab mercenaries with the Free Syrian Army. Hundreds of Kurds, Christians and Yezidis were killed in Afrin and more than 300,000 people were displaced. Many of the victims were women and children. 

With grotesque savagery, the FSA mutilated the bodies of Kurdish female fighters by cutting off their breasts and posing for selfies with their body parts. A report from the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that armed groups under Turkey’s control “committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, and pillage.”

Now Turkey has launched a new spasm of violence in north and east Syria, invading on Oct. 9. President Donald Trump has blood on his hands. He gave Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a green light to attack and withdrew U.S. Special Forces from the border that had been effectively deployed to stop Turkey’s aggression.

At least 250 civilians were killed, hundreds disappeared, and more than a quarter million were displaced last month. Kurds have been targeted as part of Turkey’s ethnic cleansing campaign. Trump essentially endorsed Turkey’s pogrom to “cleanse” Kurds for their villages and historic homeland.

Evidence of war crimes is indisputable. According to Amnesty International, Turkey and its militias carried out, "serious violations and war crimes, including attacking a school with displaced families inside." They displayed “a shameful disregard for civilian life, including through summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians”.

Mobile phone recordings show Islamists shouting "Allahu Akbar” besides a pile of Kurdish corpses. In one video, jihadis are kicking the body of a female fighter and calling her a “whore." A masked jihadi shouts "pig," warning: "We have come to behead you infidels and apostates!"

These killings are not random. The FSA is responsible for a pattern of summary executions. A video shows the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, her driver and nine colleagues. They were shot with their hands tied behind their backs.

Turkey systematically violates international humanitarian law, bombing hospitals and schools. After shelling Ras al-Ayn, Turkey prevented the evacuation of wounded civilians. Turkey used white phosphorus and napalm in heavily populated civilian areas.

Trump invited Erdogan to visit the White House on Wednesday. Trump will roll out the red carpet in a bid to make nice with Erdogan. Trump is either ignorant or turning a blind eye to Turkey’s crimes. Instead of kow-towing, the United States must hold Erdogan accountable. If Trump won’t take action, Congress must.

The House recently voted overwhelmingly to sanction senior Turkish officials, and to prohibit the transfer of U.S. military technology to Turkish units involved in the Syria campaign. The Senate should act to authorize sanctions.

Russia blocks the referral of war crimes to the International Criminal Court. However, the UN Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions can still act to investigate the killing of Hevrin Khalaf, as pattern involving Turkish sponsored jihadists.

Americans are sickened by Turkey’s slaughter of our allies the Kurds. At America’s behest, 11,000 Syrian Kurds were killed and 23,000 were seriously wounded fighting the Islamic State. ISIS prisoners escaped when Turkey attacked the Kurds and joined their FSA brethren. Many U.S. soldiers who fought with the Kurds against the ISIS caliphate are appalled.

Turkey can be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity through sanctions. In addition, it may also be liable for civil penalties now that Congress has affirmed the Armenian Genocide.

Trump’s acquiescence to Erdogan is disgraceful. Erdogan is a war-monger and despot. He should be in handcuffs, not the White House.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department under President Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He is the author of "The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.

Click here to read the article at Newsday.


Turkey’s Erdoğan protected ISIS leader Baghdadi
David L.
Monday, November 4, 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan protected Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - and U.S. President Donald Trump should have known.

In his national address announcing that U.S. Special Forces killed Baghdadi, Trump commended Turkey while turning a blind eye to Turkey’s collusion with ISIS.

While Trump thanked “the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us,” he downplayed the importance of intelligence provided by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But the SDF’s information was critical to the mission.

There is a long list questions over Turkey’s relationship with ISIS.

Turkey increased support for jihadists after Syrian President Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, in September 2013.

Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) is reported to have provided weapons, money, and logistical support to extremist groups that evolved into ISIS. Wounded ISIS warriors regularly showed up at Turkish hospitals in Gaziantep to receive medical care. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded ISIS in the spring of 2014. ISIS attacked Mosul and Sinjar in June, terrorising Yezidis and Kurds. Over five years, the so-called ISIS caliphate grew to the size of Great Britain, with eight million people under its control.

According to the SDF, “Turkey provides all kinds of support to the terrorist groups. These forces, trained and funded by Turkey are engaged in a planned ethnic cleansing against our people.” Turkish-backed jihadists commit crimes on a daily basis in Turkish occupied areas in Syria such as Afrin, Azzaz, al-Bab, Jarablus and Idlib.

In March 2019, the SDF drove ISIS out of its last redoubt in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz. From its interrogation of hardcore ISIS fighters, the SDF learned that Baghdadi had moved to Idlib in northwest Syria. Discovering Baghdadi in Idlib was a surprise to everyone who believed he was hiding in eastern Syria or western Iraq, near his ancestral village.

Baghdadi ended up at a compound in Barisha just 5 km from the Turkish border. The area around Barisha is controlled by Turkish-backed forces. Dozens of Turkish military outposts are located near the border and security is tight.

There was a network of tunnels beneath Baghdadi’s Barisha compounded. All the tunnels were sealed except for one. Since the tunnel network was destroyed by a U.S. air strike, we do not know if the tunnel was an escape route leading to a nearby Turkish military base, or to Turkey itself.

In contrast to mounting evidence that Turkey protected Baghdadi, the Kurds were indispensable to the Baghdadi operation. U.S. helicopters took off from Hareer Air Force Base outside Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Incirlik Air Force base is much closer, but the Pentagon evidently did not trust the Turkish government to make them a partner.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu exaggerated Turkey’s role. “Turkey and our U.S. counterparts shared information, exchanged opinions before the operation to kill Daesh leader started. That’s why Trump thanked Turkey in his speech,” the minister said, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

In fact, Turkey played no active role. According to a U.S. official, “Turkey did not provide any assistance in this operation. [Baghdadi] was located right next to its border … That shows you how little they do on countering ISIS.” An Iraqi official indicated that Baghdadi was killed “after his hiding place was discovered when he tried to get his family out of Idlib toward the Turkish border”.

The SDF provided critical information. Mazloum Kobani, the SDF commander, heralded the “joint effort over more than fives months between military intelligence of the SDF and U.S. Forces.”

He explained how the SDF “documented over the past months the presence of high ranking ISIS leaders, including Baghdadi, in areas under control of the Turkish state.” According to Kobani, “the operation was delayed for more than a month due to Turkish aggression in our region.”

The U.S. after-action report will reveal how Turkey, a NATO ally, colluded with Baghdadi over many years and protected him from capture. Turkey’s present leadership cannot be trusted. The SDF is America’s real friend in Syria - not Turkey.

Click here to read the article at Ahval.

Securing Syria's Oil
David L.
Thursday, October 31, 2019

Trump's peripatetic Syria policy zigzagged again over the weekend. After announcing that the U.S. would withdraw from Northern Syria, Trump changed course, announcing: "We've secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil. And we're going to be protecting it, and we'll be deciding what we're going to do with it in the future."
About 500 US Special Forces and other US personnel will deploy to the oil fields in eastern Syria. The deployment will include tank and armored units, as well as support troops. These troops will be in Syria for a while. They won’t be coming home anytime soon.
Why is Trump suddenly preoccupied with protecting Syria's oil? Why the sudden change of course regarding US troops in Syria?
Trump betrayed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), withdrawing from observation posts and giving Erdogan a green light to invade. Trump now calls on the SDF to protect the oil.
Syrian oil has no place to go except international markets via Turkish traders and tankers operating from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Erdogan, his family, and inner circle expect a windfall. Trump's decision to prioritize securing Syria’s oil is another gift to Erdogan.
Turkey colluded with ISIS between 2012 and 2014 to extract and smuggle Syrian oil, which represented a major revenue source for ISIS, generating $3 million/day. Turks enriched themselves from the terror trade. Berat Albayrak, President Erdogan's son-in-law was Energy Minister at the time, played a significant role coordinating oil exports from Syria. Bilal Erdogan, Erdogan's son, profited from shipping the oil from Ceyhan to international markets via his BMZ Group. Turkish middlemen with ties to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) raked in revenue.
Columbia University's research report, "Turkey-ISIS Oil Trade", was published on 15 December 2015. Columbia is re-releasing the report, as a reminder of Turkey’s interest in Syria’s oil. Today, as before, Turks will profit at Syria’s expense. Now, however, Trump is in on the deal, steering benefits to Erdogan’s  family and inner circle.

Click here to read the research report: "Turkey-ISIS Oil Trade".
David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the administration of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East. His forthcoming book is Front Line Syria: A Political and Military History of the Civil War. Both books are published by Bloomsbury.


Syria: Never again
David L.
Tuesday, October 29, 2019

By: J. Kenneth Blackwell and David L. Phillips, Voices Contributors

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to “cleanse” northern Syria of Kurds. Though the term “ethnic cleansing” originated during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, genocide and ethnic cleansing are functionally interchangeable. Both are crimes against humanity to which the U.S. must be adamantly opposed.

The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 who explained, "I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action." Genocide was the legal basis of the Nuremberg Trials, which prosecuted Nazi war criminals. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, adopted in 1948, requires states to intervene, whereas ethnic cleansing has no explicit or implied legal obligation.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide outlines acts that constitute genocide if they are done “with the intent to destroy an ethnic, national, racial or religious group.” These include:

- Killing members of the group

- Causing serious bodily or mental harm

- Deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole or in part

“Ethnic cleansing” is a complementary term first used by the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to characterize Serbia’s treatment of Muslims and non-Serbs during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It may seem like a more benign and antiseptic term, but genocide and ethnic cleansing both describe crimes against humanity. 

As U.S. officials, and in our private capacities, we struggled to prevent ethnic cleansing by Serbs in Bosnia. We applauded in 1995 when the United States went to war to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and, in 1999, U.S. forces intervened to prevent what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. In both instances, we championed the rights of Muslims. We were proud that the U.S. went to war to defend defenseless victims.

In 1998, we visited Southeast Turkey to document the systematic killing and displacement of ethnic Kurds. Turkey cited counter-terrorism to justify its crimes, which resulted in the deaths of 40,000 people and the displacement of millions. We testified to the UN Human Rights Commission on Turkey’s abuses.

Today, Turkey is practicing genocide again. Turkish troops and their jihadist mercenaries invaded northern Syria in October 2019. Erdogan vowed to “clear” the Kurds from the border area. Clear is a euphemism for cleanse, which is another way of saying genocide.

President Trump’s turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s murderous action against a U.S. ally who joined our fight against ISIS is a problem. The President said the Turks needed a swath of Syria to be “cleaned out” of Kurds -- this may be seen by many as an endorsement of ethnic cleansing. Regardless of the language or legal semantics, the U.S. should always oppose genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The U.S. has historically tried to be a force for good in the world. We opposed Hitler’s genocide. Bombed the Serbs to prevent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. Launched the Gulf War to keep Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons.

By allowing ethnic cleansing to remove the Kurds from northern Syria, the U.S. may be seen as an accomplice to Erdogan’s war crimes. The U.S. must oppose genocide in all its forms and in whatever name.

J. Kenneth Blackwell is the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. David L. Phillips is Director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs experts at the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Click here to read the article at The Christian Post.

If Trump won’t sanction Turkey, Congress must
David L.
Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By David L. Phillips

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that his administration would lift sanctions on Turkey after its president Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” in northern Syria. Lifting sanctions should not be a reward for egregious behavior. Rather, sanctions should be punitive, a strategic response to Turkey’s unprovoked cross-border attack that killed hundreds and displaced more than a quarter million Syrian Kurds. Congress should take the lead with sanctions legislation in order to hold Erdogan accountable. Lifting sanctions condones Turkey’s naked aggression and signals to other countries that they can abuse the rules-based international system with impunity.

Members of Congress are pressuring Trump to modify his decision to lift sanctions on Turkey. Within minutes of Trump’s announcement, Utah senator Mitt Romney wrote on Twitter, “It’s unthinkable that Turkey would not suffer consequences for malevolent behavior which was contrary to the interests of the United States and our friends.” The House has already passed a resolution that condemns the president’s retreat from northern Syria. Rather than address Congressional concerns, however, Trump has doubled down and accelerated the withdrawal of US forces. At this stage, Congress should exercise its power over foreign commerce and impose sanctions on Turkey.

New Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, promised sanctions legislation next week. Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also support sanctions. They have proposed legislation restricting Turkey’s access to military equipment and energy resources

However, Senate action is uncertain. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned lawmakers that sanctions could push Turkey and Russia closer together. McConnell must recognize that Turkey and Russia are already working hand in glove.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to strengthen Russia at NATO’s expense. He has successfully driven a wedge between the United States and Turkey, nominally NATO allies.

When Turkey ignored US entreaties and recently acquired S-400 surface to air missiles from Russia for $2.5 billion, the Pentagon canceled Turkey’s participation in a consortium to produce F-35 stealth fighters based on fears that the war plane’s advanced technology might fall into Russian hands.

Putin and Erdogan’s deal on northern Syria cements Turkey-Russia cooperation. Russians and Turks will jointly patrol the buffer zone now occupied by the Turks and their Arab mercenaries. Putin and Erdogan echoed each other’s message at their October 22 press conference in Sochi. Putin warned that the Kurds will be “mauled” if they refuse to withdraw; Erdogan promised to “smash their heads.”

Putin secured Erdogan’s agreement for actions in other parts of Syria. Russian forces occupied US bases in Manbij and Kobani, consolidating its role in northern Syria and increasing Turkey’s reliance on Russian cooperation. In Idlib, Turkey will abandon Sunni Arab fighters as Russia and Assad take steps to clean the area of opponents.

Erdogan wants to upgrade Turkey’s nuclear energy program and enrich uranium to build a nuclear bomb. He will require Russia’s expertise and assistance.

A new dynamic defines Putin’s relationship with Erdogan. Russia achieved its broad strategic goals for Syria and the Middle East, while Erdogan is forced to accept a limited tactical victory on the border. The United States and its Kurdish allies are the biggest losers.

Senator McConnell should recognize that sanctions legislation will not push Turkey into Russia’s embrace. Turkey has already moved away from the West into a Eurasian orbit of influence. Putin and Erdogan have decided that their national interests are better served by cooperation with one another than through accommodation of the United States.

Russia welcomes Washington’s refusal to impose sanctions on Turkey. Putin opposes sanctions in general, and especially sanctions imposed by the United States and EU, following Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014.

The United States must impose sanctions now. Beyond military and energy sanctions, the United States should freeze the overseas assets of Erdogan, his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, and son, Bilal, who facilitated the sale of ISIS oil, giving a lifeline to the terror group.

America’s moral authority was undermined by its betrayal of the Kurds and ignominious retreat from Syria. Sanctions represent the best way for the United States to influence events going forward. If Trump won’t act, Congress must.

David Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is “The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.” His forthcoming book is, “Front Line Syria: A Political and Military History of the Civil War.”

Click here to read the article at The Boston Globe.


David L.
Tuesday, October 22, 2019

By David L. Phillips

Repeating a lie often enough does not make it true. Trump adopted talking points from Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, asserting that the Kurds were killing Christians in northern Syria. The exact opposite is true. Kurds have protected Armenians and Chaldean Christians, while Turkey and its Islamist militias target them. Syria’s Christian population is in peril as a result of Turkey’s invasion, which came on the heels of Trump’s betrayal of America’s allies, the Kurds. 

Turkey has a sordid history. It was responsible for the 1915 Armenian genocide and, more recently, as a state sponsor of terrorism. Beginning in 2013, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, under Erdogan’s instruction, operated the jihadi highway from Sanliurfa to Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate, providing weapons, money, logistics and medical services to more than 40,000 ISIS fighters from about 80 countries who transited through Turkey to Syria. Thousands of Turks also joined the ranks of ISIS.

When ISIS invaded Iraq and Syria in June 2014, with Turkish-backing, it targeted “apostates” – Shiites, Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians. Mosul’s 60,000 Christians were executed, displaced or trafficked as sex slaves. The same fate befell Christians in the Nineveh Plains and northern Syria. ISIS converted ancient churches into mosques, madrassas, and prisons. They tore down crosses and used chisels to deface tombstones in church graveyards.

The jihadist magazine, Dabiq, displayed images of crucified Christians as “a message in blood written to the Nation of the Cross”. It featured a picture of St. Peter’s Square with an ISIS flag superimposed atop its holy obelisk. The ISIS leader said his fighters would march “all the way to Rome,” and along the way, “break the crosses [and] trade and sell their women.”

Armenians in Syria were terrified about Turkey coming in, because of what Turkey did to their parents and grandparents 100 years ago. Kessab, an Armenian Christian town in the northwest, was attacked by jihadists, with support from the Turkish military, who advanced from the village of Gözlekçiler on Turkish territory. Thousands of jihadists used five different border crossings to cross unimpeded from Turkey. Many cars with Syrian license plates were observed ferrying fighters from the Turkish base at Kayapinar. In Kessab, 670 families were uprooted and 15 families taken hostage. Three Armenian churches in Kessab were desecrated by the jihadists. Syria’s Christian population was 250,000 in 2011. Only 30,000 remained by the end of 2016.

Syriacs are the second largest Christian community in Syria. Assyrian civilization dates back to 2,500 BC when Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom spanning northern Iraq and the Nineveh plains. Assyrians, who pioneered the ancient Aramaic alphabet, self-identify as Syriacs, Arameans, and Chaldeans.

The Syriac Orthodox Church traces its history to St. Peter and St. Paul in the first century AD. Jesus spent some of His ministry in Syria and made Peter the first Pope while in Syria. Its Metropolitan, or religious leader, is believed to be the successor of Christ’s apostles and Saint Peter. Many Syriacs hailed from Hasaka, living alongside Kurdish neighbors, with whom they enjoyed good relations.

Christian churches and institutions, including schools and hospitals, were destroyed by Turkish –backed militias. The beheading of priests and community leaders was filmed in ISIS-execution videos, which included images of eleven desecrated churches. Hundreds of Syriacs were executed, thousands displaced, and scores of churches destroyed. Nuns were kidnapped and raped. In February 2015, jihadists attacked 35 Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabour River, causing 3,000 to flee. Jihadists ransomed their Assyrian captives for $100,000 each.

Turkish-backed militias offered a stark choice: convert and pay for protection, or die. According to the Syriac Union Party, “More than 100,000 Syriac Christians, one of the world's oldest Christian communities, fear Erdogan will finish the genocide that ISIS started.”

Starting with the onset of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Syria’s Christians were under threat from all sides including the regime and opposition militant groups -- but not from the Kurds. More than 11,000 Kurds in the Syrian Defense Forces, which included Christians, died fighting ISIS at America’s behest.

Bassam Ishak, President of the Syriac National Council of Syria, warned of a “horrible situation” if the U.S. pulled its troops from northern Syria.  "As soon as people hear that Turkish forces or their Syrian rebel allies are coming, the Christians will start fleeing." The evangelist, Rev. Pat Robertson, stated, "As the U.S. prepares to draw down, Syrian Christians fear they'll be wiped out. It appears U.S. policy has the potential to put 2,000 years of Christian tradition and history at risk." Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, reflected that Turkey’s invasion “did shake the evangelical community…”. Franklin Graham, a prominent evangelist, said, “If this continues, you’ll have another million people displaced in Syria.” According to the Southern Baptist Convention, "Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity. What they are now facing from Erdogan's authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words."

Most Americans are outraged by America’s retreat in Syria and Trump’s green light for Erdogan’s genocide. Metro Detroit has an estimated 160,000 Chaldean Christians. About 500,000 Chaldean/Assyrians reside throughout the United States, particularly in Arizona, California, and Illinois.

Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, self-professed evangelicals, have been silent in the face of Turkey’s aggression. Without Kurdish protection, Chaldean-Christians fear that Turkey will complete the work that ISIS tried to do, eradicating Christians from northern Syria.

Trump and his team are parroting Erdogan’s propaganda that Kurds are the perpetrators of attacks on Syria’s Christians. Trump has no understanding and little empathy for the impact his policies have on Christians in northern Syria. Trump’s big lie makes him complicit in Turkey’s crime. Christians are endangered by Trump’s ill-advised pull-out and abandonment of the Kurds.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser to the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.

David L.
Thursday, October 17, 2019

By David L. Phillips

Not so fast.

Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo got rolled by Erdogan. The “great deal” gives Turkey everything it wanted. It rewards Turkey for attacking our allies, the Kurds, assigning it control of a 22-mile buffer on the Syrian side of the border. The deal is in effect for five days, after which Turkey can continue its killing spree.

The Syrian Kurds were not involved in negotiations. A senior official for the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which represents Syrian Kurds, says the SDC has no information about the agreement.

Giving Turkey control of the buffer zone rewards Turkey for seizing territory by force. This is Syrian and Kurdish land. Giving Turkey a buffer zone ensures further instability.

How does the deal address the status of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? Turkey thinks they are required to disarm and depart the buffer zone. The SDF has a different understanding.

As of this writing, Turkey’s aggression continues. Ras al-Ayn is besieged on three sides and fighting is ongoing. 

Turkey does not commit to control its jihadist proxy, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which acts under its supervision.

There is no accountability for Turkey’s war crimes and FSA atrocities. Nor is there a mechanism to ensure accountability in the future.

Turkey makes no commitment for the continued detention of hard-core ISIS fighters. Trusting Turkey to guard them is tantamount to the wolf guarding the chicken coop.

About 160,000 people have been driven from their homes in northern Syria. No arrangement exists for their return.

Trump is like a snake-oil salesman. Congress must not be fooled. Both houses should press ahead with sanctions on senior Turkish officials, including Erdogan, and others in the defense ministry and intelligence agency.

The US should insist on the immediate removal of 50 nuclear weapons presently at Incirlik air force base in Southeast Turkey.

Trump should rescind his invitation for Erdogan to visit the White House in a few weeks. Extending hospitality under such circumstances is morally repugnant.

The UN should open a humanitarian corridor from Ras al-Ayn, allowing evacuation of the wounded.

Trump’s “great deal” happened so fast. Did the Turks merely submit a list of demands to which Pence and Pompeo immediately agreed? What promises were made to Trump whose family business has an ownership position in 119 Turkish companies, as well twin towers in Istanbul bearing his name. Trump’s effusive praise for Erdogan raises suspicions that Erdogan will reward Trump once he leaves office.

What happened in Ankara is a diplomatic travesty. Pence and Pompeo are unprincipled amateurs, acting in Turkey’s interests – not America’s.

They have adopted Turkey’s talking points, parroting Erdogan that our allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are worse than ISIS. They are also echoing Turkish propaganda, blaming the Kurds for attacking Christians in northern Syrian when, in fact, the Kurds have been protecting them against the FSA. The SDF have protected minorities, including the Yezidis and Chaldean Christians, targeted by ISIS and more recently the Turkey’s FSA.

Shame on Turkey for attacking northern Syria in the first place. Shame on Pence and Pompeo for agreeing to their demands. Shame on the Congress if it abandons sanctions and on Erdogan’s terror state and his terror militia.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser working on US-Turkey relations at the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East. His forthcoming book is Front Line Syria: A Political and Military History of the Civil War.

David L.
Saturday, October 12, 2019

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan anticipated strong criticism of Trump for withdrawing US troops and giving Turkey a green light to invade. Erdogan wasted no time after their phone call on October 8, launching air strikes the next day and deploying ground troops before Trump could change his mind. At this stage, the US should take steps to discourage the escalation of conflict and mitigate the humanitarian emergency.

Trump was wrong to betray the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s allies who helped defeat the Caliphate. Turkey shouldn’t be in Syria in the first place. It is not fighting terrorism, but killing Kurds. With “Operation Peace Spring” in full swing, there’s no putting toothpaste back in the tube.

Recep Erdogan

The US can, however, contain the damage, by insisting that Turkey limit its buffer zone to five miles from Turkey-Syrian border. That’s about the place where Turkish troops have currently paused before penetrating further into Syrian territory. If Turkey stopped now, Erdogan could claim mission accomplished and save face.

Syrian Kurds with whom I’m in contact insist they can defeat Turkey’s armed forces and its terror army (Arab jihadists called the “National Syrian Army”) if there’s a fair fight. A no fly zone would neutralize Turkey’s advantage and level the battlefield.

The US would not enforce the no fly zone on its zone. British and French war planes would be more than willing to participate.

Erdogan would be further compelled to change course if he felt that the US was serious about sanctions. The Treasury Department and US senators should work together on a broad sanctions package that would cripple Turkey’s economy and deprive Erdogan of his stolen wealth in overseas banks.

The sanctions would target Erdogan, his son Bilal, and son-in-law Berat Albayrak. Other Turkish officials would also be sanctioned, including Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Office (MIT), Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar, and field commanders directing operations in Syria.

Hakan Fadan

Capitol Hill would support sanctions. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senator Lindsey Graham, and Senator Chris Van Hollen are indignant about Trump’s betrayal of the SDF. They are the core of a veto-proof majority in the Senate.

Turkey’s aggression might have been prevented if Trump had threatened sanctions immediately. But it’s not too late. We have seen that Erdogan is susceptible to sanctions. In 2019, he caved to US pressure and released Pastor Andrew Brunson.

Erdogan knows that Trump is weak and expects him to acquiesce. Erdogan is gauging Washington’s reaction and international public opinion.

If the US fails to establish a no-fly-zone, General Mazlum Kobani, SDF head, said he would turn to Russia and the Syrian regime for protection. Alienating the SDF would further erode America’s influence.

A US-led no fly zone and biting financial sanctions for Erdogan and his inner circle would stop Turkey’s aggression, save Kurdish lives, and limit the humanitarian emergency. Now is the time to act before Syria explodes and the UN-led peace process permanently unravels.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He was aSenior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East. His forthcoming book is Front Line Syria: A Political and military history of Syria’s Civil War.