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.
Why else would he pursue so many policies in Latin America that do not serve the national interest?
Americans can be forgiven if they struggle to find any coherence in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It zigs and zags, with senior administration officials saying one thing and President Trump contradicting them without warning the next day. It punishes our allies and coddles our adversaries; it privileges demagogy over democracy. Mr. Trump’s approach appears impulsive, improvisational and inchoate — devoid of clear purpose, values or even ideology.
Yet, upon closer examination, there is indeed a consistent logic staring us in the face. The unifying theme of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is simply to service his domestic politics.
Mr. Trump welcomes and encourages Russia, a hostile adversary, to interfere in our elections so long as the manipulations benefit him. He discards decades of bipartisan policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to curry favor with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and thus right-wing political support. The president follows a basic, if unorthodox, playbook: He and his party over our country.
Nowhere is this pattern more consistently apparent than in the administration’s dealings with Latin America. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has taken a series of actions that are not tied to coherent strategies and will not deliver the desired results — if those results are to be measured in terms of achieving American foreign policy objectives. Rather, they may succeed only to the extent that they help Mr. Trump gain re-election by dishing up red meat to energize the Republican base.
Take Cuba. Last month, the Trump administration turned the clock back to the Cold War, imposing the harshest forms of sanctions against Cuba allowable under United States law. Mr. Trump reversed the policy of his Republican and Democratic predecessors by permitting Americans to sue foreign companies that use property confiscated without compensation by the Castro regime.
The administration also canceled a deal to allow Cuban baseball players to play in the United States, sharply constrained remittances and promised to end most forms of nonfamily travel, actions that will directly harm Cuba’s people and nascent private sector. In triumphantly announcing this policy shift before veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the national security adviser, John Bolton, repeatedly stressed the contrast with President Obama’s approach and pledged relentless pursuit of regime change.
Anyone familiar with the 60-plus years of failed United States policy toward Cuba before Mr. Obama’s opening in 2014 knows that the embargo only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on its long-suffering people. Instead of causing the collapse of the Cuban government or the abandonment of its ally Venezuela, Mr. Trump’s approach will again bolster hard-liners in Havana, entrench policies we oppose, drive Cuba closer to Russia and China, further isolate and impoverish the Cuban people and punish our European and Canadian allies, whose companies will now be sued.
Yet, this policy reversal surely pleases the old guard among Cuban émigrés, as it did the Bay of Pigs celebrants who cheered Bolton. Given the changing attitudes among younger Cuban-Americans who largely supported Mr. Obama’s engagement, it remains to be seen how much political sway the hard-liners still have in the crucial battleground state of Florida. Still, Mr. Trump is betting on firing up that faction.
Not content to bank only on the Cuban community in Florida, Mr. Trump is also courting the state’s many Venezuelan immigrants, who justifiably detest the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. To hasten Mr. Maduro’s exit, the Trump administration has rightly joined with regional and international partners to impose sanctions against Mr. Maduro, his government and cronies, and to recognize the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as interim president.