- Thomson Reuters
- When Trump ordered US troops to abandon the Kurds in Northern Syria, Turkish forces stormed the newly unprotected area.
- Within days of the Americans abandoning their bases, “reporters” from the Russian defence ministry’s TV channel began broadcasting from there.
- This is an intelligence (and propaganda) gift to Russia.
- Moscow will carefully examine the abandoned bases for communications infrastructure, construction materials and techniques, and battlefield medical equipment.
- Each new piece of knowledge will improve their understanding of Western tactics, techniques and operations, helping to develop countermeasures for future conflicts.
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In a single phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month, President Donald Trump undid years of US-led efforts against ISIS in just minutes.
Trump unexpectedly agreed to withdraw US forces from areas along Syria’s border with Turkey. This presence had long irritated Ankara: from these areas, American and allied special operations forces for five years trained, fought alongside and protected militias affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
It has long fought for an autonomous Kurdish state in the region, leading Ankara, Washington and others to designate the party a terror group years ago.
But the Kurds were the best fighters to take on ISIS with western support. And so the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces did, with victory costing them dearly: 11,000 dead (versus six American losses).
- Mehmet Ali Dag/ Ihlas News Agency (IHA) via REUTERS
Shortly after that October 6 phone call, US forces abandoned their Syrian bases. In turn, Turkish forces and pro-Turkey militias in Syria stormed the now-unprotected Kurdish-held areas. Evidence quickly emerged of ethnic cleansing and war crimes against Kurds.
Current and former US service personnel are “heartbroken” and furious at Trump’s betrayal of Kurdish allies, now being massacred by Turkish troops and their proxies.
His decision has achieved that rarity in Washington these days: bipartisan condemnation, with leading Republicans calling the withdrawal “a bloodstain in the annals of American history” and “a grave strategic mistake”.
The retreat from Kurdish areas left a ton of intel in the hands of the Russians
Yet, with one exception, little has been written on the longer-term (counter-)intelligence implications. Make no mistake: this is an intelligence (and propaganda) gift to the West’s adversaries – especially Russia.
What won’t have been publicised are the careful facility inspections by Russian and other hostile intelligence officials, looking for insights into Western intelligence.
The Russian footage above shows plenty that Moscow and others will carefully examine and hope to learn from: communications infrastructure; construction materials and techniques, and battlefield medical equipment, for example. Each new piece of knowledge will improve their understanding of special forces tactics, techniques and operations, enabling the West’s adversaries to develop potential countermeasures for future conflicts.
Kurds will now be targeted by Moscow and Iran for info
The greatest vulnerability comes from Kurds now forced to seek Syrian and Russian protection, exposing all fighters – but especially elite Kurdish counter-terror units – to pressure of one kind or another.
For five years, these units operated alongside US, UK and French special forces against ISIS, learning much along the way about western tactics, equipment, sources and methods.
Over time, Russian, Iranian, and Syrian intelligence officers will debrief selected Kurdish fighters, while also looking to recruit long-term agents who may be secretly activated when again working with western forces, for example.
Adversary intelligence services will also want to exploit all information on whatever Kurdish electronic devices they can access: messages, photos, contact lists, geo-location and other meta-data will gradually paint a wider “electronic picture” of joint western-Kurdish operations.
Russian access to regional communications networks and providers (either on its own or with Syrian, Iranian and/or Turkish cooperation) will speed up this forensic intelligence work that will last many months.
Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have had a year to prepare for this
Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have had a year to prepare for all this and more, after the Kurds secretly opened a back-channel with them, fearing a Turkish massacre if the US ever left Syria.
The Kurds already suspect Russia, Syria and Turkey of planning to divide Kurdish territory amongst themselves.
Some US officials have downplayed how much intelligence value Kurdish fighters could actually be, due to US operational security over time.
While there is some truth to this, it also reveals a persistent Western weakness: to misunderstand the mindset of authoritarian regimes; and the huge resources – time, people, money – that they are prepared to use to gain what to Western observers might only appear to be a slight advantage.
Authoritarian states do not do national security on the cheap. And US operational security has room for improvement.
Turkey is resurrecting ISIS by releasing their fighters from Kurdish prisons
Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds will take decades to play out. An emboldened Turkey will eventually overreach; but for now it seems determined to revive ISIS by freeing Islamic State prisoners, making a mockery of the tens of thousands of people who have died either fighting these extremists or as their victims.
The Kurds are now facing genocide or, at the very least, mass forced displacement. Russia appears to be filling the vacuum left by US retreats worldwide.
But the most immediate impact of Trump’s actions has already been on America’s international standing as a reliable ally and on Washington’s lost access to human intelligence from the region vital to US national security.
Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds has been an intelligence gift to the West’s adversaries – how big a one, we will soon find out.
Dr Victor Madeira is a commentator on national security affairs and the author of Britannia and The Bear: The Anglo-Russian Intelligence Wars (Boydell, 2016).
His next book examines how Western democracies can develop strategic immunity against 21st-century authoritarian states.