- Patrick CockburnMiddle East correspondent for The Independent.
U.S. troops have begun withdrawing from northeast Syria as Turkey prepares to invade Kurdish-controlled areas of the country. For years, the Kurds have been close allies to the United States in the fight against ISIS. On Sunday, however, the White House released a statement that surprised many in the region, announcing that Turkey would be “moving forward with its long-planned operation in Northern Syria,” following a phone call between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in that operation, and the United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area,” the statement said. The announcement marks a major shift in U.S. policy, since as recently as January President Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked Kurdish forces in Syria. Meanwhile, in neighboring Iraq, the death toll continues to rise as police and soldiers fire on people defying a government-imposed curfew in mass anti-government protests. For more on events in the region, we speak with Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to the Middle East, where U.S. troops have begun withdrawing from northeast Syria as Turkey prepares to invade Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria. For years, the Kurds have been close allies with the United States in the fight against ISIS.
On Sunday, the White House released a statement that surprised many in the region. It said, quote, “Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation in Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in that operation, and the United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The announcement marks a major shift in U.S. policy. In January, President Trump threatened to, quote, “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked Kurdish forces in Syria. The U.S. has about a thousand troops in northeastern Syria. It’s not clear whether they’ll pull back to allow Turkey’s assault or leave Syria entirely.
Meanwhile, in other news from the region, the mass anti-government protests are continuing in Iraq. The death toll has now topped 109 as police and soldiers continue to open fire on thousands of demonstrators who are defying government-imposed curfews.
To talk about all these issues, we’re joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. He’s joining us from London.
Patrick, welcome back to Democracy Now!
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with the surprise announcement, after the phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump, that the U.S. is pulling back its troops for Turkey to attack in northern Syria. Explain what you understand is happening and the significance of this.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, this is really what’s a Shakespearean act of betrayal. The Turks, Turkish Army is planning to come across the border with Syria. This means that the Kurds, who have been fighting ISIS, fighting Daesh, will mostly flee southwards. This is about 2 million people. So, we’re going to have what is, in effect, a major act of ethnic cleansing there. It’s not clear, from what the White House says, how far the Turks will go. They say it’s going to be on the border, but they also say the Turks are going to take over a refugee camp full of former ISIS members, particularly women and children, a place called al-Hawl. But that’s right over on the Iraqi border. If the Turks go that far, then they’re taking over a big chunk of northeast Syria.
So, this is sort of good news for the Turks. It’s very bad news for the Kurds, who lost 11,000 dead, fighting ISIS. And for ISIS, it’s very good news, because it means that their main opponent, the Syrian Kurdish forces, are either going to be fighting the Kurds — the Turks or are going to be running away or going to be dead. So, this is the sort of news I think ISIS has been waiting for, for its opponents to split up.
And it’s pretty extraordinary the statement says, “We defeated ISIS on the ground.” All the troops on the ground were led by the Kurds and some Arab allies. There was U.S. airpower, but the defeat was by the Kurds, who are not mentioned in this new agreement between Turkey and the U.S. So, it really is an extraordinary act of treachery.
AMY GOODMAN: Trump tweeted this morning, “[I]t is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their 'neighborhood.' They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!” exclamation point. So, if you could respond further to that, Patrick Cockburn? Again, it’s not clear if Trump is saying he’ll bring the U.S. troops home or just move them over for this Turkish onslaught.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, the significance of this may not be obvious to people who don’t know that piece of — that part of northern Syria, that the Kurdish population generally lives just south of the frontier line between Turkey and Syria. So the Turkish Army doesn’t have to move very far south to take over all the Kurdish cities, like Qamishli and Kobani and other places. So, as soon as they move a little bit south, you have a massive exodus of Kurds in that area.
So, you know, the statement says that — is an isolationist manifesto, in a way, saying we have nothing to do with this. But they might have told the Kurds beforehand, because, as I said, it was the Kurds who actually fought and defeated ISIS since 2014. And Turkey, for quite a long part of that period, was allowing all these foreign fighters to cross the border from Turkey into Syria. A lot of these people who are now in this refugee camp at al-Hawl, how did they get into Syria? Well, they just crossed over the Turkish border without being impeded over that time, because there was a sort of tolerant attitude on the part of Turkey towards ISIS. And Turkey made perfectly clear that if — it preferred ISIS to win rather than the Kurds. We saw that at the siege of a Kurdish city called Kobani in 2014.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, the United Nations warned against the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Panos Moumtzis is the U.N. regional humanitarian chief for the Syria crisis. This is what he said.
PANOS MOUMTZIS: It’s a conflict that has gone on for far too long, and, therefore, any operation that takes place at the moment has to take into account to ensure that we don’t see any further displacement. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We are preparing for the worst, because, indeed, from experience, this could result to a displacement of people. We want to make sure that we are ready.
AMY GOODMAN: Patrick, that’s the U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. Your response?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure. Well, unfortunately, we know all too well what’s likely to happen, because the Turkish Army already, last year, crossed the Syrian border into a Kurdish enclave called Afrin — it was almost entirely Kurdish-populated — and drove out the Kurdish population. President Erdogan of Turkey announced halfway through that he discovered that the original population of this area — didn’t say when — was Arab, and they should be allowed back. So, you had what was, basically, one of the very few peaceful parts of Syria suddenly devastated by war and the Kurds driven out.
And that seems to have been an early preview of what we’re likely to see in the rest of northern Syria, which is the Turkish Army crossing the border, the Kurds fleeing south — it’s not clear where they’ll go — and a resurgence of ISIS, because they’ll no longer be fighting the Kurds. So, I think we’ve got a very good idea what’s going to happen. And unfortunately, this is happening at a moment when the war in Syria seemed to be ebbing. It was still going on in different parts of the country, but nothing like what we had seen before. So, it’s suddenly been — had a new life being injected into it by this decision by Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve just returned from Iraq. These mass protests have just begun. At this point, over a hundred people — I think the number is 109 — have been killed in these demonstrations by the security and police. Can you explain what took place? You were there when it started earlier this week.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, it was pretty extraordinary. And I was there on Tuesday, when it began, and I knew there was going to be a small sort of demonstration not far from where I was staying in central Baghdad, in a place called Tahrir Square, later that evening. But people weren’t paying that amount of attention. There had been weekly demonstrations there.
The protesters tried to cross a bridge, which leads in the direction of the Green Zone. And suddenly the security forces on the bridge started throwing stun grenades, rubber bullets, and then live rounds, so they killed a lot of people, wounded a lot of people. That led to a big reaction the following day, many more protests. And then the government declared a curfew. You know, Baghdad is a big city, 7 million people. I was on the streets later, pretty cautiously, and, you know, it was completely empty. They had cut the internet. So, the whole city was paralyzed. It hasn’t stopped this going on.
You said there were 109 dead, but there are also 6,000 — over 6,000 wounded, according to the Interior Ministry. And doctors I talked to in the hospitals think that the number of dead is a gross underestimate by the government, that the real figure is much higher.
AMY GOODMAN: Your recent piece, “The Iraqi people are in revolt — pushing the post-Saddam Hussein settlement to the brink of collapse.” Explain what that is.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, you know, in 2003, Saddam falls. Iraq is a major oil producer. It’s produced about $6.5 billion worth of oil a month. But ordinary Iraqis find that such is the level of corruption in the government, the amount of money that’s been stolen, that no new roads are being built, that schools and hospitals and power plants and everything else just are exactly the same as they were 16 years ago. So, one of the demands of the protesters is against corruption. But it’s corruption in a way that I think many people would have difficulty to imagine, which — you know, it’s a kleptocracy. It means everything is stolen. A contract for a road is signed, or a power station. At the end of them, all the money disappears; there’s no road at the end of the day, no power station.
So, there’s been mounting rage about that, and joblessness, as well. Just the people aren’t able to get jobs. I was driving through central Baghdad last week, you know, and outside ministries you’d see groups of guys trying to sort of — having little encampments protesting that they haven’t been able to get jobs. And this is probably one of the reasons why these protests are going to go on. The protesters were saying to me, “Look, we don’t have anything to lose. Here I am in my late twenties and thirties. I have never had a job. I’ll never get a job with this type of government, that steals everything or distributes jobs only to its own members of its own political party.”
So, you’ve had all these economic and social grievances building up and up, and then they exploded last week. And it’s unlikely, I think, the government will get back to where we were before this happened. They’re offering a 17-part plan at the moment to improve the economy. But nobody believes them, because, people say, you know, “The 17-part plan, but what they don’t mention is which they’re firing at us — snipers are firing at us from buildings with live rounds, killing people.” People arriving in the hospital have mostly been hit in the head or the heart. They’re obviously shooting to kill.
So, I think that this is sort of, we are on the edge — we’re on a new stage in Iraq, in which we’re heading towards mass uprisings, protests in the street, a government that’s completely on the defensive, doesn’t know what to do. But it’s also very difficult to reform, because it’s so corrupt and the whole sort of system of government is based on corruption.
AMY GOODMAN: And protests are also in Lebanon, as well. Is that right? I spoke to the Iraqi president, Barham Salih, at the United Nations and asked him about —
PATRICK COCKBURN: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — pressure on — his thoughts about the U.S. putting so much pressure on Iran. In the last 10 seconds we have, Trump ramping up that pressure on Iran, how does that affect Iraq?
PATRICK COCKBURN: It raises the political temperature. It means that all this is taking place, this sort of crisis which revolves around economic disaster, but everybody’s more hostile —
AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much, Middle East correspondent for The Independent.