Trump turning his back on Syria isn’t the solution he thinks it is.
Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
When President Donald Trump ordered U.S. soldiers to withdraw from northeastern Syria last Sunday, abandoning our Kurdish allies there and making way for a Turkish invasion explicitly intended to crush said allies, he was palpably shocked and outraged that his decision earned him such harsh, bipartisan criticism, and so little praise. Defending himself in typically frenetic tweets over the past week, the president has sought to portray the decision as a sensible, strategic move to extricate our armed forces from a no-win situation, sparing soldiers their lives and taxpayers their money.
The president’s argument rests on several pillars. First, the U.S. went into Syria with the objective of destroying the Islamic State’s territorial “caliphate,” which was achieved earlier this year (with extensive help from the Syrian Kurdish forces). Second, as the U.S. has no immediate strategic or national security interests there, it is time to leave the task of managing the intractable conflict in Syria to countries closer to it with more direct interests at stake, such as Turkey, Iran, Russia, and nations in Europe. Third, the U.S. should never have gotten involved in these “endless wars” in the Middle East in the first place; there is no hope of us solving that region’s problems and no scenario that would constitute “victory” for us, so we should stop wasting our time and money there.
From now on, Trump proclaimed in a tweet last week, “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.” This is consistent with the foreign policy doctrine Trump has been pursuing since he first entered office: The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, has no obligations to weaker parties abroad, and should not be doing anyone any favors, regardless of treaties or longstanding relationships. In Trump’s view, the U.S. should only involve itself in foreign conflicts when it is profitable to do so, either because we stand to gain materially from a certain outcome or because a rich friend like Saudi Arabia is paying us for our help, up front, in cash.
On some of these points, Trump is not entirely wrong. The U.S. has been deeply entangled in multiple conflicts throughout the Middle East for decades now and has little to show for it: Our failed attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacerbated the problems of sectarian violence and radical Islamist militancy they were meant to solve. Islamic State militants in the Middle East probably don’t have the capacity to carry out a major terrorist attack in the United States, so our national security interests in the region are currently indirect at best. These adventures have been monumentally expensive, especially in Iraq, and the U.S. public is rightly tired of what really does feel like an endless state of war.
Yet Trump’s decision to draw down our forces in Syria undermines its own moral, strategic, and even fiscal logic through its hasty and unplanned character. Trump gave this order after a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the explicit rationale of inviting Turkey to invade northern Syria and take over responsibility for securing the area and the thousands of ISIS fighters held captive there by our Kurdish proxies. As he nearly always does when dealing with foreign despots, Trump took Erdogan at his word that his intentions in Syria were benign and disregarded the warnings of experts that the Turkish incursion would only further destabilize Syria and make the humanitarian situation there even worse.
Sure enough, the consequences so far have been disastrous. Erdogan’s objectives in northern Syria turned out to be more extensive than he had let on. Turkish artillery fired suspiciously close to a U.S. outpost and Turkish-backed sectarian militias are putting American soldiers at risk, occasioning Trump’s decision late Saturday to evacuate the remaining 1,000 U.S. soldiers from northern Syria. Our erstwhile Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have cut a hasty deal with Iran, Russia, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resist the Turkish onslaught. Hundreds of ISIS detainees have escaped from a facility formerly guarded by the SDF, while dozens of high-value detainees who were supposed to be taken into U.S. custody were not. Turkish-backed militias are already committing ethnic and sectarian atrocities.
The Trump administration has made a show of threatening Turkey with sanctions if its actions in Syria cross certain red lines, but Erdogan appears undeterred. The notion that Turkey was simply going to roll into Syria and effect an orderly transfer of control was never something an intelligent person could seriously entertain. Was Trump gullible enough to believe this, or did he simply not care?
The evidence so far points toward the latter: If his decision to greenlight the incursion was not part of some corrupt bargain with Turkey (where Trump has personal business interests), it may have been a deliberate middle finger to our European allies. In a justificatory tweetstorm last Monday, the president snarked: “We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate, including capturing thousands of ISIS fighters, mostly from Europe. But Europe did not want them back, they said you keep them USA! I said ‘NO, we did you a great favor and now you want us to hold them in U.S. prisons at tremendous cost. They are yours for trials.’ They again said ‘NO,’ thinking, as usual, that the U.S. is always the ‘sucker,’ on NATO, on Trade, on everything.” On Sunday, he declared again on Twitter that Islamic State prisoners “will never come to, or be allowed in, the United States!”
The most evident conclusion from this language is that Trump decided to withdraw from northern Syria and disclaim responsibility for the thousands of European-citizen ISIS fighters detained there, partly if not primarily to show the Europeans that the U.S. is not enough of a “sucker” to hold dangerous terrorists on someone else’s behalf. In the darkest interpretation, creating a crisis of ISIS prisoners on the loose was not an unintended side effect of this move. If the Europeans don’t like how the Kurds or the Turks are guarding these foreign ISIS recruits, they can go in and take care of it themselves. If escaped ISIS detainees go on to carry out terrorist attacks, they will do so in the Middle East or perhaps in Europe, but not in the U.S., so this is not our problem. Once again, per the Trump doctrine, the U.S. is no longer in the business of helping anyone but itself.
This, of course, is a woefully shortsighted view of U.S. national security interests as they pertain to the fractured states and intractable conflicts of the Middle East. A common, bipartisan critique of Trump’s decision to wind down our presence in Syria is that it increases the likelihood of ISIS regrouping and becoming a serious threat again. Trump is unmoved by this argument, as he believes the U.S. should not be bothered with a reformed Islamic State unless or until it poses a direct threat to us. As he put it in the conclusion of his Twitter thread last week: “We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”
Yet if the U.S. disengagement and the sectarian violence brought on by Turkey’s foray into northern Syria facilitate an ISIS resurgence, it is only a matter of time before the group threatens U.S. interests abroad, if not U.S. soil, once again. That means Trump or some future president will eventually feel a need to send U.S. forces back to destroy the next iteration of the caliphate, costing more American blood and treasure and leaving us in much the same position we’re in today, while compounding the collective trauma of the people of the Arab heartland. In his effort to extricate us from endless war, Trump may only be perpetuating the cycle.