After eight years of chaos, it is hard to know which moment in the history of Syria’s brutal civil war-turned-proxy-conflict will ultimately stand out as the most egregious. There can be little doubt, though, that President Donald Trump’s sudden decision last week to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and abandon America’s Kurdish allies in the militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces—their most reliable partners on the ground in the campaign against the Islamic State—will rank as one of the most spectacular failures in the history of American foreign policy.
The White House’s turnabout by tweet in Syria has not only shredded the last bit of America’s credibility as a trustworthy ally and security guarantor in Middle East; it has also effectively destroyed the already slim chances of brokering an end to the war and some kind of sustainable peace, possibly for years to come. With fewer American boots on the ground and relations with Syrian Kurdish leaders fractured, the U.S. has little room now to influence outcomes in Syria. What started as a policy of equivocation about the indispensability of American leadership in the Middle East under the Obama administration in 2012 is now, seven years later under Trump, a policy of American capitulation to Russian aggression and appeasement of Turkey’s worst authoritarian impulses.
Any hope that the U.S. might be able to positively shape the outcomes of the multiple, interlocking proxy wars in Syria all but evaporated as Russia rushed to fill the vacuum left by a hasty exit of U.S. Special Forces from northern Syria and as Turkey appeared determined to wipe out a sizable portion of Syria’s Kurdish population. The White House will now have a much harder time convincing members of the U.N. Security Council and exiled Syrian opposition groups still pushing for an end to the war that Washington’s word is bond when it comes to brokering an equitable political settlement with Bashar al-Assad’s resurgent regime.
The symbolism of a prominent Russian propagandist, Oleg Blokhin, on hand to record a video of Russian military contractors taking over an abandoned American military base near the embattled Syrian town of Manbij was hard to miss. It appears that President Vladimir Putin now has the wind at his back. A greater Russian military presence near the Turkish border could give the Kremlin just the right amount of leverage it needs to check Iran’s ambitions in Syria and the wider region, while stacking the deck in Moscow’s favor should any Security Council vote come up in the near term on a pathway to resolving Syria’s war.
Trump is already gifting Putin the spectacle of a debased U.S. presidency in near free fall amid an impeachment inquiry over Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate his rival Democrats. The reckless exit from Syria—with U.S. troops forced to abandon their posts and even bomb their own base in order to “reduce the facility’s military usefulness”—is another gift to Putin, the politician most responsible for putting Trump in power in 2016.
The mayhem that has followed Trump’s decision in Syria was entirely predictable.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to impose sanctions on Turkey over its Syria incursion will further fray U.S.-Turkish relations, while effectively paralyzing NATO if the Turkish military continues its assault on America’s erstwhile Kurdish allies. It has been clear for a while now that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has soured on the North Atlantic alliance. And sure enough, he outright rejected the first U.S. calls for a cease-fire, effectively raising the diplomatic equivalent of the middle finger to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence even before their flight to Ankara got off the ground earlier this week.
Once they got to Turkey, though, there was a sliver of hope, as Pence, after a long meeting with Erdogan, announced a brief, five-day cease-fire that would allow the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters to evacuate a strip of northern Syria. In exchange, the U.S. would remove last week’s sanctions and hold off on further sanctions. Like much diplomacy under Trump, though, there are many questions marks. Soon after Pence announced the agreement, Turkey’s foreign minister denied it was a cease-fire. As the White House frenzy to contain the blowback continues, Erdogan still seems committed to ending any questions about Kurdish autonomy once and for all.
The mayhem that has followed Trump’s decision in Syria was entirely predictable. Less than a week after the Turkish army began its assault on Kurdish positions along Syria’s border with Turkey, hundreds of Islamic State detainees broke out of a prison camp in the northern Syrian town of Ain Issa. As Turkish troops streamed across the Syrian border, U.S. forces were forced to leave behind dozens of high-ranking Islamic State detainees. Untold numbers of Kurds have been wounded and killed while Turkish-backed proxies have reportedly committed war crimes against members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
History shows that abandoning allies on the battlefront never goes well. Doing so ahead of highly contentious elections next year only weakens Trump’s ability to maneuver domestically and internationally. Anyone looking to cut a deal with the U.S. on a major foreign policy objective would be wise to wait until the results of the 2020 election. This means China and the Taliban, among others.
The trouble brewing now over Trump’s handling of Syria and Ukraine is not likely to clear up anytime soon. On top of frayed U.S. relations with Turkey and Russia, as well as existing tensions with Iran, it should be enough of a warning for the entire world about the perilous state of the Trump White House.