Foreign Policy, Security, Top Stories, World Affairs

A Shameful Betrayal

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.


Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on U.S. foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776

Featured Image by Kurdishstruggle


  1. I am not among those who call for a complete end to US involvement in “foreign wars” or for the removal of all overseas troops.

    That said, we all know full well the duplicity of these conversations, especially when a Republican is president:

    Every penny of military spending is “waste”, and every soldier deployed is an imperious injustice. Anything less than total withdrawal of all US forces from everywhere is a sign of right-wing authoritarian (colonial?) evil that must be condemned in the harshest possible terms…

    …unless anything bad happens anywhere in the world, in which case it’s an appalling travesty that “greed” led America (cough, “Republicans!”) to do less intervening than they could have, all to save a buck!

    There’s no winning this game. We’re not meant to win. It’s a game of verbal exploitation.

    It’s even worse in the Middle East, where America is a monster for every bullet fired, which harms the poor Arabs and inspires them to future attacks against us, but is also a monster for every tyrant not stopped, as we’re hearing again this week.

    Out of curiosity, what if the world acknowledged that Erdogan is the reason for this week’s bloodshed? What if someone (anyone?) outside the US pledged support for hemming Erdogan in? Maybe then the US wouldn’t be in such a catch-22.

    By the way, interesting choice to put women in combat gear in the photo. Hardly representative, but definitely intended to manipulate emotions.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Google and read up on all of the articles excoriating Barack Obama for the foreign pullbacks that led to ISIS, the Arab Spring, Putin’s aggression, and so many other growing problems that are now boiling over. I’m sure it’ll take me a while to read them all… right?

  2. In short, if America is involved in the conflict, it has been hated; if it is not, it has been hated again.
    I’m afraid you have been hated simply because you exist (and it’s not about Trump, it’s just a logical conclusion). If so, relax, buddy, Jews have been hated for about two thousand years and still exist.

  3. This essay is too biased and emotional, starting off with a silly proposal that a head of state should sever ties because our US president (but not Erdogan, apparently) is too ‘flippant and ignominious’ who ‘endangers’ our friends and interests. Ms. Lehmann herself feels strongly about this (“This is so gross” tweet from a Yahoo news article of all things), which is obviously her right. And I get that the author feels strongly about this. But I much prefer facts and reason and stats as opposed to manipulative ploys and emotional tirades. I myself have mixed feelings about this issue and would theoretically be the ideal reader for this, but instead, the essay has my shackles raised.

    1. The photo of mostly female soldiers when in reality they are not mostly female. Obvious attempt at manipulation, reminds me of when the media shows ‘migrants’ as mostly women and children.
    2. “A Shameful Betrayal.” At least the bias is front and center–which is fine, if it were honest about itself, but it isn’t. The essay assumes everyone is as furious and outraged as the author, and in doing so, uses charged words: flippant, ignominious, endangers, disgrace, impetuous (“Is the president capable of any other kind [of claim]?”), woeful ignorance, pernicious," and so on.
    3. WHat is the author’s proposal exactly? To convince me, he should have pros and cons about staying there and risking more American lives (which the author is not willing to volunteer, presumably, for himself or his own loved ones) and millions/billions of dollars, versus the risks of pulling out.

    The author writes, “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.”

    Though he doesn’t explain how he procured his crystal ball, this may well be true. But convince me. Don’t use apocalyptic language (“no hope, mayhem, bloodshed, folly, post-American order”) and simmering hysteria. Right now, it’s just an assertion as opposed to a reasoned argument. Trump says stream-of-consciousness things, sometimes weird or incoherent, but Trump saying weird things isn’t a compelling reason to condemn non-interference here. And too, I want to see risks/benefits. But I do find it fascinating how suddenly, now that Trump is in office, so many Dems are eager warmongers, on top of the old-time Republicans who never met a war they didn’t like. But how long does the author propose we stay there? Why this issue and not that issue? Why is this so much about Trump himself and not about the issue itself? What about other nations’ roles?

    Personally, I’d prefer an article that delves much more into the history of the region and the history and complexities of international - mostly American - interference, pros and cons, and why it’s necessary and critical in this case, with data.

  4. It appears that I am not the only one impressed with the photograph at the top of this article.

    “They’re white girls. They look just like my daughter’s friends. How can we not help them against the Turkish Beast!”

    But there’s more than this crude, sexually charged agitprop to be annoyed about in this article. For example:

    … 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 …

    Close ties, eh? How about saying: “The YPG is the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)” which is probably a bit closer to the truth.

    These Kurdish fighters are justly held in high esteem by America’s special operations command …

    Well, that’s just begging for some sort of qualification, isn’t it, since America’s special operations command understands full well the very close ties between the YPG and the PKK (terrorists, remember?). We won’t find that qualification from the author of this article, though.

    … 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 …

    We have “loyal friends” in the Levant, do we? No, we do not. Countries don’t have friends, they have temporary allies. Even Israel is an ally only so long as we give them just enough money and weapons for them to survive from year to year.

    The Kurds are not our friends. They have never been our friends. (They’re communists. They hate capitalism.) The U.S. Government has made deals with them, and they with the U.S. Government. The deals have been honored or breached, depending on who is speaking, but they are not our friends, and we are not theirs.

    One of the reasons I voted for Trump was because he promised to do what Obama had promised to do and then failed to do: put an end to the now 18-year war that the US has been waging in the Middle East. We went there, we smashed the place up, we punished a lot of people who needed punishing and then we needed to leave. Just leave.

    No nation building. We’d been promised that. Bush let us down. Obama let us down, too. There is still time for Trump to keep his promise before the 2020 election, and I hope he does not let us down.

    I understand the Turks are going to crush the Kurds. Just as I understand that everyone else in the Middle East is going to try to crush someone else.

    I say, let them. This is who they are, the people of the Middle East. This is what they do. This is what they have always done. They kill each other. They kill children. It is not our responsibility to save them, and it is irresponsible to pretend that it might even be possible. It’s not.

    And by the way, Europe should take very seriously the Turkish threat to push millions of Syrian refugees into Europe, like shoving mash down a goose’s throat with a hose. Angela Merkel is a white woman and she would rather die than let anyone accuse her of racism, but even she would surely reach the end of her tolerance and her sanity if that is allowed to happen.

    If I had the president’s ear (he would ignore me, but even so) I would tell him that so long as oil continues to move in the global market, and so long as the Syrians are prevented from leaving Syria, he should allow the people of Syria, the Turks and the Kurds to have at each other until they are all too exhausted to kill any more.

    I am sick of them.

  5. But it’s a Republican’s fault. Not theirs. Always a Republican’s fault.

  6. How can it be called flippant to follow through on a promise to end our involvement in endless wars? Go ahead and disagree on the policy but calling the decision flippant is itself flippant.

  7. For as long as I can remember, Democrats have been insisting on an end to foreign wars. Now that we have a president who actually has the balls to pull the trigger on a withdrawal from the Middle East, it’s some sort of travesty? Give me a break.

  8. Something I learned from reading the blog of Michael Scheuer, is the idea, all but forgotten in the west, that the purpose of a country’s military should be to provide security for that country.

    The combination of technological power and soft power that the United States possesses, has enabled that country to become the hub of a world empire, and has normalized attitudes that would be unreasonable for almost any other country, although I suppose they have had their counterparts in many other empires. For example: the idea that it is the duty of the American military to prevent genocides elsewhere, to prevent human rights violations, to provide law and order while an occupied country is social-engineered towards democracy, to enforce a humane balance of power in every world region, et cetera.

    The idea that the American military might retreat back to within its own borders, and be employed only to deal with direct military threats to America, sounds bizarrely radical, and yet that situation would mean that America behaved like any other sovereign state in history, that was not an empire. Functionally, America is an empire, even if this empire is called “the liberal world order”.

    Indeed, America’s empire is exceptional only for its global scope and for the tools it has at its disposal. Otherwise, it combines features that are historically commonplace among empires, namely, an ideology (e.g. democracy and human rights) and practical economic rationales (e.g. US navy guarding the sea lanes, whereby Middle East oil reaches democratic East Asia).

    Obviously, the clash between nationalist populists who are sick of maintaining the empire, and liberal globalists who think it must be upheld, is one prominent dimension of the inner conflict within today’s west. The globalists still hold most of the institutional power, but the nationalists have a lot of support from the ordinary people.

    There is a question here, of who has more will to fight. I do not know the history of the author of this piece, but he does not strike me as someone who is personally willing to kill or die, in order to protect his “liberal world order”. On the other hand, the more militant wings of populist nationalism are ready to fight their globalist ruling class, in order to prevent the domestic transformations which that ruling class is promoting.

    The author’s opinion on America’s duty to its Kurdish allies, appears to be advanced in a context where the globalist conception of the American military’s purpose, is simply taken for granted. To the extent that this is so, his opinion is irrelevant to the real political struggle in the west. If he were to make his argument in the context of America’s duties as it retreated to a new, nationalist security strategy, that would be interesting. If he explicitly said that America must stand by the Kurds because that’s part of the 100-year plan for preserving the liberal world order - it’s an argument towards which I would still feel hostility, but at least the big issues would be explicit.

    But he only approaches that at the end, where he laments that without America, the Middle East will shift towards a new “ruthless” balance of power. Most of the essay is something of a ramble, which starts out by appealing to the national interest, but then goes into minutiae of previous American policies and their consequences, without ever addressing why American forces are over there in the first place. He talks about ISIS, which is certainly capable of hurting American interests; but America was in the Middle East long before ISIS existed.

    In short, I classify the author as an imperial intellectual, and one who never questions whether the empire as such is good for the republic at its heart. For him, the only questions are about which kind of imperial policy is to be preferred.

    P.S. It would be nice if he showed up here in comments and replied - not to me, just to anyone. But will he?

  9. I don’t think this article is motivated by hatred of American foreign policy in general. I’d say it’s about hatred of Trump.

    “This impetuous claim—is this president capable of any other kind?..”

    In a whole I am a staunch supporter of President Trump’s policies. Withdrawal the U.S. armed forces from the northern edge of Syria is his first serious drawback. I hope he will rectify this mistake. The sooner – the better.

  10. Trump’s not wrong. We ARE fighting other people’s wars, and for what? What benefit is there to the American people? None. None whatsoever.

    What’s our objective in Syria? Why are we fighting? How do we know when we’ve won? And what’s the prize when we win? Nobody has answers to these questions. It’s just vague references to “America’s national interest” which is assumed and never questioned. This is why these neo-cons are so furious, they can’t think outside the box and see that involving ourselves in wars in the first place is the entire problem.

    These people are SO locked in to their tiny worldview that they can’t see outside it. It’s like they’re playing Risk by Milton Bradley and all they can see is that Trump made them pull their armies off a territory on the board. And they’re hopping mad about it, because the object of Risk is to conquer the entire world.

    The objective of the US government isn’t to conquer the entire world. The objective of the US government is to make a better life for the American people. These people are just blind to this aspect of life. All they can see is “conquer the next territory”.

    Globalists and neo-cons love playing the game of thrones, and just assume accomplishing their goals is always worth the price to the American people. It’s not.

  11. The US is just acting in its own trade interests, I think that should be fairly easy to understand.

  12. I don’t blame most Americans at all for wanting out of their ‘forever war’. Let the Turks and the Russians deal with it, it’s a huge mess. The Kurds can retreat to Iraq if need be, the minority groups the leftist media sobs about, were MUCH better off before the Syrian civil war. Trump should pull out of Afghanistan next, it’s what he said he would do, don’t let him renege.

  13. I’m sympathetic to a free Kurdistan, disdainful of Erdogàn, and generally favour a more muscular foreign policy. I’m not happy at all about Trump’s decision here, so this article should have played well with me. But no, I hated it. Let’s start with this astounding statement:

    You don’t get to override the constitutional powers of the president just because you disagree with a foreign policy decision.

    Immediately after complaining about Trump’s supposed ignorance of the strategic situation, we get this piece of breathtaking ignorance. Is the author aware of how many powerful jihadist groups there are in the world? There are what, 20 al Qaeda- or ISIS-affiliated organisations holding territory in Africa right now. Is it America’s responsibility to invade all those countries and defeat all those terrorist groups? Clearly few think so.

    Trump’s withdrawl does not change that ISIS is an existential threat to both Assad and the YPG. To think they’re going to stop fighting them just because the US isn’t involved anymore makes no sense.

    Transparent tactic, comparing Trump to Obama as an insult. But as @MorganFoster pointed out, pulling out of foreign wars was a Trump campaign promise as much as it was Obama’s. The fact American voters voted for withdrawl three presidential elections in a row suggests this is what Americans want. As many people above have said, if you want war, you need to convince the American people that there is a vital national security interest involved.

    I think there is one: much like the US still has troops in South Korea, it’s not good to cede ground to geopolitical enemies, because it will just be that much harder to deal with later. But, Trump disagrees, and he was the one who won a mandate. Being shocked and disgusted that Trump is following through on (yet another) campaign promise is silly.

    The whole article is dripping with disdain for Trump, and I can’t help but suspect it has more to do with the author’s personal animous than his hawkishness. Was he writing similar insulting articles about the Obama withdrawl from Iraq that lead to ISIS? So much of the left’s reaction reads like reflexive TDS, where positions supported while Obama was in office are vilified now that it’s Trump.

    A stable Syria is also a more vital economic and national security issue for the Europeans, so why aren’t we hearing calls for them to step up? If Syria is uniquely important among the global terrorist threats, why aren’t EU member states picking up the slack? Is this really a priority, or just another thing for the left to complain about, and demand curtailment of presidential authority over?

    A less emotional, more information-rich article would have been better.

  14. “Trump took on the Republican establishment, he took on the Democratic establishment, took on the media establishment and he ended up winning the election to become president of the United States. And that is an extraordinary accomplishment. And it talks about perseverance, it talks about very strong political instincts, it talks about a way to connect with people. So I give Donald Trump his due,” Bernie Sanders said.

  15. The lefties have never understood this. The earth-shattering election of 2016 was not the presidential election, it was the Republican Convention.

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