For the sake of America’s national interest, all communications between President Trump and Turkish strongman Tayyip Erdogan ought to be severed forthwith. Such conversations tend to spur flippant and ignominious decisions by the American president to diminish the American position in the Levant that simultaneously endangers America’s loyal friends and its strategic interests.
Few will remember, but the disgrace in which President Trump is currently involving the United States in northern Syria was not only foreseeable but had actually been announced well in advance. Last December after a call with President Erdogan, Trump declared the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria on the grounds that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS] had been vanquished.
This impetuous claim—is this president capable of any other kind?—was immediately belied by the Pentagon and the wider U.S. intelligence community, which insisted that ISIS was on the defensive but nowhere near defeated. The Islamic State still fielded thousands of fighters, operating throughout swathes of Syria and Iraq, and remained a lethal threat to U.S. national security.
The next day, a “Statement from the President” was issued from the White House revising the commander-in-chief’s declaration, to the effect that America’s foes in the region would henceforth be responsible for fighting ISIS “without us.” This palpable contradiction—did the president think the Islamic State had been crushed, or was its existence simply not America’s concern?—did not pass unnoticed, save among the president’s most sycophantic supporters.
The president’s quiet revision of ISIS’s status prefigured a larger—if, as we now know, temporary—reversal of the proposed retreat from Syria. But the president’s statement did not merely expose Trump’s woeful ignorance of the strategic situation in Syria. It also smuggled a pernicious principle into the conduct of American statecraft: namely, that combat against jihadist organizations was not a proper vocation of the U.S. armed forces. The deployment of U.S. military might against holy warriors who had erected a vicious and aggressive theocracy was not, in Trump’s view, an American honor to be relished but rather an American burden to be cast off.
The retreat that Trump proclaimed then—prompting the resignations of Defense Secretary Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy McGurk—has now been executed on the heels of another conversation between Trump and Erdogan. Trump has announced that U.S. forces would withdraw from the northern edge of the country, after which neighboring Turkey could proceed with an invasion against their long-time Kurdish foes that control the area.
The principal target of Turkey’s offensive is a Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, whom it considers terrorists. The U.S. enlisted the YPG in its campaign against the Islamic State, and it fought valiantly and effectively toward that end, delivering a major blow to the caliphate. These Kurdish fighters are justly held in high esteem by America’s special operations command, but the dirty secret behind this alliance was that the YPG were preferred over other Syrian rebel groups because they would not pose a threat to the Syrian regime and thus would not imperil Obama’s prized Iran deal.
Obama’s policy of forging this partnership thus bequeathed a strategic dilemma to his successor, since Turkey, a U.S. treaty ally, howled in protest after the Kurds expanded their territorial reach and established a haven called Rojava. Ankara objected both to any Kurdish autonomy in Syria and because the YPG has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group—designated as a terrorist outfit by the U.S. State Department—that has fought the Turkish army for decades. But just as the best remedy to the death squads unleashed by ISIS chief Omar al-Baghdadi was not to be soft on Assad, the honorable way to keep Kurdish aspirations in check is not by giving the Turkish army a free hand in Syria.
America has roughly 1,000 soldiers garrisoned in Syria to coordinate with local allies and suppress any reformation of the caliphate. Trump’s drawdown began with upwards of 100 of them abandoning outposts near Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain. The Turkish army, fortified by their own local Sunni rebel groups, has advanced on these and other Syrian towns. This will lead either to a Kurdish slaughter or a scattering of thousands (and, in time, potentially three quarters of a million) Kurds south into the bloodstained arms of the Syrian regime. Such an exodus would necessitate a deal between the YPG and Bashar al-Assad, with the Kurds compelled to offer territory to the ghastly dictatorship in exchange for protection.
The results for U.S. foreign policy and national security will not be edifying, even in the unlikely event that an American military “footprint” remains in the country. Under Assad’s chronic and cynical misrule, which deliberately transformed a peaceful and multi-confessional democratic rebellion into a sectarian slaughter, the jihadist cause can expect to prosper in Syria and further afield. Assad’s looming triumph over the last rebel redoubt in Idlib will entrench the regime’s foreign patrons, Russia and Iran, as the region’s major powerbrokers. The latter has already opened a second front against Israel to complement Hezbollah, its powerful Lebanese proxy. Under those circumstances, with the YPG pressed into Assad’s service, the U.S. is likely to face a resurgent ISIS without the aid of battle-hardened partners on the ground, and Israel is likely to face emboldened Iranian Quds Force operatives and their proxies on numerous borders.
Sounding distinctly like his predecessor, Trump has justified this rapprochement with Ankara as a necessary move to end the “endless wars” against ISIS and kindred jihadist movements. (The president’s Democratic detractors and Republican defenders alike have seldom detected the signal through the noise: the means are different, but extricating America from the Middle East was Obama’s objective before it was Trump’s.)
Of course, America’s declared intention of withdrawal and capitulation will achieve the opposite effect in a region as wily and hazardous as the Middle East. Without America’s presence and power, there will be no hope that forces aligned with American purposes and strong enough to do our fighting for us will prevail. America’s determined enemies will surge, and America’s interests will be put at stake. All this mayhem and bloodshed and folly will only be a dress rehearsal for what is to come in a fully post-American order.
In the midst of the revolutionary upheavals in Arab capitals at the beginning of this decade, Washington, fearing a protracted Iraq-style commitment if it engaged the street, yielded to the “realist” preference for the status quo of the palace. The price for this compromise was a willful diminution in America’s regional influence, a ceding of ground to other regimes that were not so “war-weary.” The historical and strategic re-orientation that began with respecting what Obama called Iran’s “equities” in Syria has now culminated in Trump’s shameful betrayal of its Kurds.
The Kurds will suffer today, but they will be joined by many others tomorrow. For this callous abandonment of America’s position beckons a new balance of power in which ruthless rival states and groups stand at close quarters with daggers drawn, and the benign restraining influence of a distant but intimidating hegemon is no more.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.