Did Michael Flynn’s undisclosed work for Turkey impact the US fight to destroy ISIS? McClatchy reported last night that Flynn rejected a plan to partner with the Syrian Kurd military force after the outgoing Obama administration recommended it as a way to attack Raqqa, the heart of ISIS. Flynn’s intercession has members of Congress looking hard at this exchange with Susan Rice in the days leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration:
One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.
The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.
Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.
If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces – and which was his undeclared client.
If the truth plays out as McClatchy’s Vera Bergengruen describes, it’s pretty damning. Turkey has an antagonism against the Kurds going back generations, if not centuries, and have targeted the YPG in the current conflict despite US alliances with the group. Flynn’s undisclosed status as a foreign agent for a Dutch firm with ties to the government in Turkey makes this look very suspicious, and raises questions about whether he intended to keep his dealings with Turkey under the radar in order to profit from them while in government.
The McClatchy report shows a correlation. Does it show causation, though? Before we go there, however, we probably should look at the broader context. The Obama administration didn’t exactly embrace the idea of allying with the YPG either, for the Raqqa assault or anything else. In August of last year, Vice President Joe Biden assured Turkey that the YPG would take no positions to the west of the Euphrates, and the city of Raqqa is on its western bank. The next month, in a joint statement after a bilateral meeting with Obama, Recep Erdogan stated that the fight against terrorism included not just “Daesh” (ISIS), but also the YPG, with no recorded rebuttal from Obama:
Our fight against Daesh terrorist organization and other terrorist organizations, PYD, YPG, and our fight against these terrorist organizations will continue as committed as they have ever been. I hope and pray that — which is — our hope is never to see a belt of terrorism, a corridor of terrorism emerging in or around our region.
The fact that this issue got left until the last ten days of the Obama administration speaks to the difficulty involved in using the YPG. Rice’s call here looks a little like some can-kicking — making the decision when it no longer had any impact on the outgoing administration, and was about to be someone else’s headache. Until then, based on more than a year of public statements, it certainly seemed as though the policy had been to prioritize the relationship with Turkey and shove the YPG to the sidelines, as counter-ISIS chief Brett McGurk hinted in February 2016:
Q I wanted to ask you about Turkey. Can you sort of talk a little bit about their role in all of this? They didn’t seem to be too happy when you met with YPG in Kobani, and they have basically said the U.S. should either for us or against us. Can you respond to that and sort of talk about how Turkey will play a role in the cessation of hostilities, but also making sure that they’re not taking out the Kurdish fighters that we’re partnered with?
MR. MCGURK: Yes. I’ve probably been to Turkey more than any country in the last 18 months. They’re a critical partner of ours. I was last there with Vice President Biden. We’re working with them extraordinarily closely. And, as I said when President Obama saw President Erdogan in Antalya for the G20, one of the main focuses of conversation was this 98-kilometer strip of border. We had some recommendations for the Turks; they had some recommendations for us. We’ve worked very closely together, and have made a real difference on that border. And so we’re going to continue that very close partnership.
My trip to Kobani was primarily focused on, as I mentioned, getting the political cohesiveness — not just Kurds but Arabs, Christians, other units — getting them together, a political cohesiveness, to begin to move on Shaddadi. And that was the main purpose of the trip. And now, I think, the fact that the Shaddadi operation is underway, I think we feel pretty good about it. But we’re going to continue to work closely with Turkey day to day. They’re one of the primary partners for us in this campaign. It’s why the President spoke with President Erdogan for almost an hour and a half the other day. And we have to work on this closely together. So we can’t succeed in this without Turkey.
Considering the impact Rice’s recommendation would undoubtedly have on the relationship with Turkey, it could just as easily have been caution to postpone the adoption of the policy at the start of a new administration, one that didn’t have a full diplomatic or nat-sec team in place. After all, the Obama administration put it off for a long, long time. Flynn may have eventually come back to the YPG alliance had it not been necessary to fire him less than a month later, at first for misleading Vice President Mike Pence and others about his activities during the transition, and later more substantively because of his undisclosed financial connections to a Dutch firm with links to Turkey.
By the way, this turned out to be a no-brainer, regardless of how Turkey feels about it. There aren’t enough forces in the region without the YPG to conduct an assault on Raqqa. It’s either the YPG or thousands of American ground troops for an urban assault that will cost many lives on all sides. Unless the Obama or Trump administration wanted to commit American troops or let ISIS off the hook indefinitely, partnering with the YPG is the only realistic choice, and eventually we got Turkey jollied along anyway.
Flynn’s biggest sin so far is not disclosing his ties to the Erdogan government through his Dutch client, which is bad enough for a national security adviser. Before we assume that this led to corrupt outcomes, though, we’d better make sure to fully understand the situation as it existed in that period, and why a recommendation from the outgoing administration in its final ten days could have been received with considerable skepticism.