Turkey, Syria, the Kurds, and Trump’s Abandonment of Foreign Policy
The New Yorker · by · October 20, 2019
Illustration by João Fazenda
Much of the world watched aghast, last week, as President Donald Trump shattered any notion of an informed or sane U.S. foreign policy. He paved the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of Turkey, to invade Syria, abandoning America’s Kurdish partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces, who had eliminated the Islamic State’s caliphate in March, after five years of gruelling warfare. (The S.D.F. lost eleven thousand soldiers; the U.S. lost six.) Erdoğan views Kurds—the world’s largest ethnic group without a state—as terrorists, because of a Kurdish separatist campaign in Turkey. After a phone call with Erdoğan, Trump ordered the withdrawal of a thousand U.S. Special Forces soldiers, who had been backing the S.D.F., even though ISIS sleeper cells are still waging an insurgency in Syria and Iraq. The retreat was so abrupt that the U.S. had to bomb a depot full of arms that it didn’t have time to remove.
Trump’s ignorance of the world has never been so blatant—or produced such bipartisan opposition. The House of Representatives voted 354–60 to condemn the pullout. On the Senate floor, Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, rebuked the President for leaving “a bloodstain on the annals of American history.” Yet Trump seemed delighted with his decision to let the Turks and the Kurds—both U.S. allies—fight it out. “It was unconventional, what I did,” he told the crowd at a campaign rally in Dallas, on Thursday. “Sometimes you have to let them fight like two kids. Then you pull them apart.”
Trump and Erdoğan share a crude egotism and a paranoia about deep states trying to undo them, but Erdoğan deftly gamed Trump. On October 9th, Trump sent a remarkably puerile letter to the Turkish leader, warning him not to go too far. History, he wrote, “will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen.” He added, “Don’t be a fool!” Erdoğan reportedly tossed the letter into the trash. The same day, he launched Operation Peace Spring, to destroy the S.D.F.
Erdoğan’s perfidy dates back years. His government allowed thousands of jihadis to cross the Turkish border and join the caliphate. With Turkey as a partner, the Obama Administration spent millions of dollars training and equipping Syrian Arabs to fight the jihadis; those militias failed. Obama turned to the Kurds as a last option, in 2014. Over time, two thousand Special Forces soldiers were deployed in Syria. Erdoğan has long pressed Trump to remove them. Last December, he persuaded him to do it, even though the caliphate had not yet been defeated. The Pentagon called for leaving half the soldiers in place, and prevailed. To forestall an invasion, the U.S. agreed to get the S.D.F. to withdraw up to nine miles from the Turkish border. In August, U.S. troops supervised as the Kurds destroyed their own military posts along a sixty-mile stretch of the border; meanwhile, Turkey deployed more troops and matériel. “The real salt in the wound,” a U.S. official said last week, is that “we told the S.D.F. not to worry. ” He went on, “Turkey was building up for an invasion the whole time. We made it easier for them.”
Last Thursday, Vice-President Mike Pence, after a hastily arranged trip to Ankara, announced a five-day ceasefire. The terms of the agreement give Erdoğan exactly what he wanted: Turkey claims that the S.D.F. has to retreat twenty miles along three hundred miles of the Turkish border, in order to create a buffer—a “safe zone”—for Turkey. Trump took a kind of perverse credit for the ceasefire. “What Turkey is getting now is they’re not going to have to kill millions of people,” he said. Where exactly the Kurds would go—or whether Turkish troops would stay—remained unclear.
The deal immediately appeared tenuous. The Turkish foreign minister said that Turkey had agreed only to a “pause”—not a ceasefire—“for the terrorists to leave.” General Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the S.D.F. commander, said in an interview that his troops would begin to withdraw only along the sixty-mile border where the Turks invaded. The Kurds, he said, “are not leaving the lands and graves of their grandfathers.” Brett McGurk, who resigned last year as the U.S. special envoy for the coalition fighting isis, said that the safe-zone plan is “totally non-implementable.” He added, “This is Erdoğan’s fantasy scenario, and it includes, of course, nearly all the Kurdish, Assyrian-Christian, and other minority areas of Syria.”
The impact of Trump’s decisions—on the campaign against isis, on the balance of power in the Middle East, and on America’s image globally—can’t be undone by the deal that Pence negotiated. “I don’t understand how, in any way, the U.S. is better off on the ground,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “It’s a question of when, not if, American forces will have to return to the region to deal with a reconstituted isis.” And, just as Trump was abandoning the most effective campaign ever conducted against jihadi extremists, he committed some three thousand troops to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the ideology that spawned Sunni jihadism, including Al Qaeda—a movement that was inflamed when the U.S. stationed troops in the Kingdom during the first Gulf War.
The Kurds, left stranded, turned to the Syrian government for military help. President Bashar al-Assad regained control of more territory in a day than he had in years of fighting Syria’s civil war. Russian troops, who are propping up Assad’s regime, also moved in. A Russian journalist posted a video from a strategic U.S. base in Manbij—once the hub where foreign isis fighters plotted attacks on five continents—showing food left uneaten on plates in the mess hall and cans of Coke in a refrigerator. The American withdrawal coincided with Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia appreciates the active role of the Russian Federation in the region and the world,” King Salman said last Monday, welcoming him. During the Turkish offensive, Putin invited Erdoğan to Moscow. Turkey’s agreement to a pause expires on October 22nd, the day that Erdoğan will meet with the Russian President.
Trump’s actions are already raising questions about America’s trustworthiness. “Partnership is a principal way we establish and maintain influence, particularly as we strive to maintain a competitive advantage against our great-power rivals,” General Joseph Votel, who retired in March as the head of the U.S. Central Command, said. “It is hard to see how this policy decision will contribute to that end.” Trump claimed that he withdrew to avoid being sucked into another “endless” Middle East war. He may instead have facilitated one. ♦
The New Yorker · by · October 20, 2019