US President Donald Trump’s impulsive decision to pull American troops out of northern Syria and allow Turkey to launch a military campaign against the Kurds there has proved utterly disastrous. But a crisis was already inevitable, given the realities on the ground and the absence of a coherent US or Western policy in Syria.
CANBERRA – Recent events in Syria have naturally raised two questions: Who lost the country? And where might the international community go from here?
The first question is easier to answer. Looking back, Syria has probably been lost since the popular uprising in 2011. When President Bashar al-Assad’s regime stubbornly refused any effort to resolve the matter peacefully, no outside power proved willing to intervene. Instead, everyone hoped that a mix of sanctions, United Nations-led diplomacy, and halfhearted attempts to support a “moderate” opposition would eventually bring down the regime.
It didn’t work. Fundamentalist forces gained political ground and territory, and others, including Iranian-backed militias and the Russian military after the fall of 2015, rushed to Assad’s defense. Although the regime had long deprived the Kurds in northern Syria of most of their rights, it started making concessions to them when it came under pressure. As a result, Kurdish militias abstained from challenging Assad, which led much of the broader Syrian opposition to shun them.
After the Islamic State (ISIS) established its “caliphate” in Mosul and Raqqa in 2014 – enabling it to strike even Baghdad – there was an understandable rush to confront the terrorist threat. In Iraq, that task fell largely to Iranian-aligned Shia militias. But in Syria, the situation was more complicated. The United States had no intention of sending in its own combat forces, but it also knew that the Syrian opposition groups that it (and Turkey) had been arming were not up to the challenge. In any case, those groups were focused on toppling Assad, which had ceased to be a high priority for Western policymakers.
Given these constraints, the US threw its support behind the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US has long recognized the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, along with the European Union and Turkey, classify as a terrorist organization. But even if the decision did not fit with any long-term strategy, it did satisfy short-term tactical needs, and supporting the YPG ultimately proved successful in depriving ISIS of its territory (though the group will remain a long-term threat).
The uprooting of ISIS would have been a good time to launch a political process to resolve the broader conflict. In fact, there were at least two options on the table. The first was to establish a Kurdish/YPG-governed entity in northern and northeastern Syria. But, of course, that would have raised the ire of Turkey, which was not ready to tolerate any PKK presence on its border. In addition to requiring an open-ended US military presence, this scenario would have resulted in Kurds ruling over substantial swaths of non-Kurdish territory.
The other option was to pursue a broader political settlement, with the goal of creating an inclusive governance structure acceptable to the regime in Damascus. Over time, this process could have led to an arrangement similar to that in northern Iraq, where the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now cooperates closely with Turkey.
But this didn’t happen. As the US position evolved, the Trump administration rejected the first option and then actively discouraged the second, making a crisis inevitable. The trigger for the crisis was a telephone call in which US President Donald Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a green light to send forces into Syria. Trump ordered the US military to abandon the area immediately, and added insult to injury by announcing it all on Twitter, shocking both the Kurds and many of his own advisers.
Since then, everything has come crashing down. With their credibility in tatters, US officials have desperately sought to create some kind of policy out of the ruins created by the presidential tweets. The president has threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if it does what he enabled it to do. With Kurds – most of them civilians – fleeing Turkish bombs, the UN Security Council has remained typically silent, while the Europeans have condemned everything and everyone involved.
As foreign-policy disasters go, this is one for the record books. But the seeds for this larger conflagration were sown long before the now-infamous Trump-Erdoğan call. Absent any coherent policy, the conditions were ripe for a crisis. The question now is whether there is any constructive way to proceed.
For now, the US has agreed with Turkey on establishing the wide security zone in northern Syria it sought. Russia, meanwhile, has evidently brokered some sort of arrangement between the YPG and the Assad regime. With Russian and Syrian government forces now entering some of the areas vacated by the US, the Trump administration is left trying to manage its relations with Turkey. As for the EU, there is little to be done. Having already cut off all high-level political contacts with Turkey, it is impotent in the face of this latest crisis.
Logic dictates that all of the relevant parties in the region should now sit down and try to come to some kind of agreement. In addition to the KRG, Iraq, and other Arab countries, there also needs to be a place at the table for Turkey, Iran, and the Syrian government. Yes, the Assad regime is associated with a wide range of horrors and atrocities; but there is simply no other way forward.
Regional talks certainly will not come easy. Many parties will have to swallow hard and face difficult realities. Unfortunately, the prospect of a democratic Syria was lost years ago. The top priority now must be to restore stability and prevent further catastrophes. There are no longer any good options, if, in fact, there ever were.
The abandonment of Kurdish forces in northern Syria has reinforced already existing doubts in the region and around the world that the United States remains a reliable ally. Those doubts are well-founded, because the isolationism underlying the move is widely shared by the American public.
NEW YORK – There are several reasons why US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from northern Syria, and leave the region’s Kurds vulnerable to neighboring Turkey’s military incursion, was a terrible one. The Kurdish forces in control of the region had been the principal US partner in the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS). Trump’s abandonment of them reinforced already existing doubts in the region and around the world that the United States remains a reliable ally.
The decision also created conditions enabling hundreds, and potentially thousands, of ISIS terrorists in Kurdish-run prisons to go free – and presumably resume terrorist activities as soon as they are given the opportunity. It is more a question of when, not if, US forces will need to return to Syria to contend with a reconstituted ISIS (most likely without a local partner to bear the brunt of the fighting). In the meantime, the Kurds have turned to the Syrian government for protection against Turkish forces, a move that has allowed President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime (backed by Russia and Iran) to reassert its control over much of the country. For its part, the US has lost most of what leverage it had to influence a political outcome in Syria.
Trump’s flawed decision seems to stem from his desire to make good on the promise he made during the 2016 election campaign to withdraw the US military from Syria and the Middle East more broadly. But this raises a larger question: given the negative impact of the move, why would he believe that it would prove to be popular at home?
One explanation is that Trump is confusing “endless wars” with an open-ended military presence. This confusion is costly. What the US was doing in northern Syria was smart and efficient. Kurdish forces assumed the bulk of the combat role against ISIS; the US contribution was modest and largely confined to advising and providing intelligence support. Moreover, the US presence restrained the actions of the Turks, Syrians, Russians, and Iranians. With the withdrawal of US troops, that restraint disappeared overnight.
More fundamentally, Trump’s decision taps into an old American tradition of isolationism, which has a lineage traceable to America’s Founding Fathers. It was in remission during the Cold War, but it has recently reemerged, fueled by the “intervention fatigue” triggered by the long and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It gains additional traction from the widespread view in the country that many domestic needs – from infrastructure to health care and education – are going unmet. A lack of emphasis on foreign policy and the world in US schools and media is also contributing to this inward turn.
Trump’s “America First” slogan is premised on the idea that the costs of US world leadership far outweigh any benefits. The resources spent on activism abroad, according to this view, would be better spent at home.
However appealing such arguments may sound, the notion that the US can safely turn its back on the world and still thrive even as global order declines is seriously misguided. Trump has repeatedly claimed that Syria is not critical to America’s security, noting that it is thousands of miles away. But Americans learned the hard way on September 11, 2001, that distance is no guarantee of safety. Similarly, infectious disease, the effects of climate change, and efforts to subvert elections do not stop at national borders.
The costs of America’s global role are considerable by any measure. The defense budget alone now totals $700 billion annually, and intelligence, foreign aid, diplomacy, and maintaining a nuclear arsenal bring overall national security spending to over $800 billion. But as a percentage of GDP, this is well below the Cold War average. And history shows that the US economy nonetheless flourished even with this high level of spending.
To be sure, the US has many domestic shortcomings, from public education to health care, but for the most part these problems are not the result of a lack of spending. The country spends over twice the OECD average on health care, but Americans do not lead longer or healthier lives. Similarly, high spending on education does not yield better results than in countries that spend less. How money is spent is always more important than how much is spent.
But such facts are nearly irrelevant when it comes to the political debate. Many of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020 share at least some of his isolationist views, and opinion polls reveal that many Americans do, too. Trump is as much a reflection of America’s mood as its driver, and a certain degree of Trumpism – a desire to pull back from global commitments in general and military ones in particular – is likely to outlast the man.
At some point, things will change. History suggests that periods of retrenchment often end owing to some great geopolitical shock, followed by periods of exertion. The problem is that such shocks tend to be costly in terms of human lives and resources. But for now and the foreseeable future, the US is unlikely to conduct a foreign policy commensurate with its interests and strength.
Many people have compared Donald Trump to a mob boss. But I’m starting to think that the comparison is unfair — to mob bosses.
After all, you can’t build an empire, even a criminal empire, unless people believe that your word is worth something. They have to believe both that you’ll honor your promises and that you’ll make good on your threats. The first few times you renege on agreements it may look as if you’re being smart and other people are being suckers; but soon they’ll take your measure, and realize that you’re actually the guy who can be rolled.
I’ve been thinking about this reality over the past few days, as we’ve watched two separate Trump administration debacles unfold.
The biggest debacle, the one that has many of us feeling a bit ashamed to be Americans, is, of course, the betrayal of the Kurds. We don’t really know why Trump so casually abandoned allies who have fought and died on our behalf, but one thing is clear: Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan took Trump’s measure, decided that his threats to retaliate against Turkey’s effective invasion of Kurdish territory were empty, and seized the moment.
But there was another, lower-key debacle involving China. Trump has, of course, made a trade war with China the centerpiece of his economic policy, inflicting substantial harm on both economies along the way. Last week, however — perhaps realizing the weakness of his domestic position as the march to impeachment gathers momentum — he seemingly decided to declare victory and retreat, proclaiming that he had a deal with China that, even by his own officials’ description, sounded like getting nothing China hasn’t been offering all along.
But it was actually worse than that. Acute observers quickly pointed out that all we had was a unilateral announcement by U.S. officials that there was a deal, which should be treated with skepticism until and unless we got an explicit joint statement of what had been agreed.
And sure enough, yesterday the Chinese basically said, “Oh, that deal? Well, we’re thinking about it. Let’s talk some more.”
In other words, like Turkey’s Erdogan — and, actually, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a while back — they’ve taken Trump’s measure and decided that he can be rolled.
The point is that Trump’s actual art of the deal, which involves making promises you intend to break whenever it seems convenient, only works if you can keep finding fresh suckers to cheat. If there are people you have to deal with repeatedly, like the leaders of other nations, they eventually figure out both that you can’t be trusted and that you needn’t be feared: your promises are empty, but so are your threats.
All of this has vastly weakened America. We used to be a country of great power but even greater influence, because we had principles other nations could count on us to follow. Now we have a leader whom other leaders see as malleable — an unprincipled and ill-informed guy who can be flattered, bribed or simply fooled into giving them what they want.
Making America great again, indeed.