As if President Donald Trump didn’t face enough trouble of his own making, he announced 10 days ago what appeared to be a peremptory withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
The decision ignited an immediate domestic firestorm because it gave the green light to Turkey’s aspiring dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to invade Syria and attack the Kurdish forces who had demolished the ISIS caliphate under American tutelage and air power. Erdogan regards Kurds as terrorists, which they are elsewhere. So, his forces moved within hours.
And Trump’s withdrawal virtually guarantees the reemergence of a cohesive ISIS.
Americans have come to realize that Trump is a transactional president, meaning his decisions almost always involve some kind of deal of convenience, not adherence to any particular code or philosophy. This can be quite convenient, self-serving and, in this case, immoral.
What shocked many was Trump’s cold-hearted abandonment of the Kurdish troops who’d done virtually 100% of the deadly fighting to fulfill his loud campaign vow to crush ISIS, and do it quickly.
The U.S. departure leaves another vacuum with ominous implications for the tumultuous area’s future. While Trump’s pullback betrayal surprised aides and military commanders, the bipartisan blowback appeared to surprise Trump. And he went on the defensive.
“We have to bring our people back home,” he said. That’s a campaign message resonating with many Americans tired of costly foreign military involvements. The trouble with that message is the U.S. had only 1,000 special operators in Syria. They’re leaving Syria. They’re not coming home. They’ve simply moved elsewhere.
Trump wrapped his decision in another popular message: “We are getting out of the endless wars.” If U.S. involvement in Syria has been a war, we need more like it. It was a proxy military operation.
The American Special Forces gave intel and strategic advice to Kurdish commanders and, when necessary, called in aggressive air cover from the Incirlik air base in – wait for this, too – Turkey.
Kurds did the dirty, deadly work of annihilating the ISIS caliphate before its terrorist tentacles could do much U.S. damage. In that fight, Kurdish forces lost 11,000 men and women during the last three years. That’s four times U.S. losses in 18 years of Afghanistan fighting.
Then, five days after his Syria withdrawal announcement, Trump blithely dispatched 2,000 additional U.S. troops away from home to Saudi Arabia, another foreign military involvement with no end date, to discourage Iranian adventures. Trump said that transaction was OK with him because the Saudis will finance it.
As Turkey’s troops and proxies bombarded Kurdish forces in northern Syria and killed Kurds, Trump then sought to downplay Kurds’ achievements at our behest. He said they hated ISIS anyway. But isn’t that the art of a good deal, both partners getting something they want?
And Trump also claimed the U.S. owes Kurds little, with a completely cockamamie statement that they were not U.S. allies in World War II. That actually is quite true. Of course, neither was Japan nor Germany, now close U.S. allies for mutually beneficial reasons.
As further cover, Trump said he threatened Erdogan (the name means “born a brave warrior”) to lay waste to Turkey’s economy if he harmed the Kurds. Let’s see now if that vow becomes Trump’s Syrian red line, as empty as former President Barack Obama’s on Syria’s chemical weapons.
In a photo op, Trump signed an executive order giving himself the power to impose “serious” economic sanctions on Turkey, the kind of popular political punishments that have not changed anyone’s behavior in Russia, Iran or Venezuela in recent years.
Trump’s Syrian withdrawal decision came immediately after a phone conversation with the Turkish strongman. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Trump’s sudden Syria withdrawal announcement last December also followed a phone chat with Erdogan. That hasty decision, later ignored by Trump himself, prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who’s written that great powers cannot survive without strong allies.
Being unpredictable like Trump can be helpful when confronting opponents. With allies, not so much. They value reliability and trust, actions not words. Which is why the U.S. could rely on NATO allies post-9/11 to join the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda, the only time in NATO’s 70-year history that its mutual defense clause has been invoked.
Trump has said that NATO is obsolete. He’s also praised it for following his advice on strategy and vowed support. Allies wonder which presidential opinion is real and enduring, if either.
Despite his belated professed public support for Kurds in the path of Erdogan’s modern military, Trump’s actions cutting them loose are bound to raise questions in the minds of local loyalists helping U.S. military or diplomats elsewhere. Or those asked to in the future.
If, for instance, I was a dedicated Afghan interpreter for the U.S. as Trump resumes talks with the Taliban to withdraw American troops after 6,585 days of that endless war, I’d be completing my own transactional deal right about now: packing up my family to exit the country, too.