National Security & Defense

An Ignominious Retreat in Syria

A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, in Erbil, Iraq October 21, 2019. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

Turkey and Russia carved up northeastern Syria with the U.S. standing on the sidelines.

This was the inevitable result of President Trump’s decision to pull our troops from the Turkey–Syria border to make way for a Turkish incursion. The Turks long had wanted to clear Kurdish fighters — the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, which had allied with us against ISIS — from their border, in keeping with their general enmity toward the Kurds and opposition to any sort of Kurdish autonomous region.

We had held the Turks back, until Trump agreed on-the-fly in a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make way for the invasion.

The process was atrocious. Trump didn’t consult with the military and foreign-policy professionals around him or those on the ground, leading to a chaotic U.S. response as events unfolded. More important, cutting loose the Kurds who had recently sacrificed so much to be our front-line fighters in the successful campaign against the ISIS caliphate was dishonorable. Turkish and Turkish-allied forces immediately pushed civilians from border areas and engaged in atrocities, most notably the assassination of the Kurdish politician and activist Hevrin Khalaf.

The defenses made of Trump’s pullback don’t hold up very well. One is that we only had about 100 troops on the Turkish border, not enough to stop an invasion. True, but such minimal trip-wire forces have stayed the hand of much more formidable adversaries, namely the Eastern Bloc at the Berlin Wall and North Korea on the DMZ. Another is that Turkey is a NATO ally that we didn’t want to skirmish with on the ground. Yes, but this logic would have acted even more powerfully on Turkey, which would have had much more to lose if it killed any of our troops. The fact is that Trump could have held the Turks back if he hadn’t been motivated by a long-standing desire to begin liquidating our commitments in the Middle East — even the smallest, safest, and most useful commitments.

He wants to bring a conclusion to “endless wars.” This may be an understandable reaction to the long American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Syria operation wasn’t anything like those wars at their height, when we had 150,000 or more troops engaged. We leveraged a very small force to help muster the Kurds for a fight that even Trump thought necessary, smashing the caliphate. It’s true that our situational alliance with the Kurds didn’t commit us to defending them forevermore or creating and protecting an autonomous region for them. But other potential proxy forces in the future will remember how quickly we tossed the Kurds aside.

The move weakens our position across the board. The Kurds have thrown in with Bashar al-Assad, who is allied with the Russians and Iranians. Meanwhile, there is no countervailing benefit to us with Turkey. We extracted no concessions in exchange for opening up Syria to them, and the harsh congressional reaction to the Turkish move will alienate Ankara from us further. The chief victor is Russia — along with Assad and Iran — which will solidify its position in Syria and gain more influence with all players. It is telling that Erdogan decided the immediate dispensation of northeastern Syria with Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Sochi.

The biggest downside is that, in the wake of our victory against the caliphate, we are essentially depending on Russia to keep up the pressure on ISIS, and there is no guarantee of that. Trump may want to be done with Syria, but Syria may not be done with him.


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