National Security & Defense

Trump Used the Options He Had in Syria

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, October 10, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
There was no reason to leave a few Special Forces in the middle of an armed conflict when, yes, Erdogan might be willing to risk war with the U.S.

There has been a great deal of outrage expressed over the fact that the United States did not prevent Turkey from initiating the military operation to create a “buffer zone” in northern Syria. The major objection seems to be that in withdrawing the 100 or so American Special Operations forces who had been stationed in the area, the United States was giving permission for the operation and abandoning the Kurds who have helped us in the fight against ISIS.

I don’t see the criticism; in fact, far from abandoning the Kurds, the United States has consistently opposed the Turkish buffer-zone operation and used every means to prevent it that were consistent with America’s overriding national interests in the region.

The Kurds are tough fighters and were indispensable in supplying the ground component against ISIS. They had their own reasons for doing it, of course. Apart from not wanting to become victims of ISIS themselves, the Kurds are a stateless people and they have been trying to carve out a self-governing enclave for themselves in Syria or Iraq or Turkey or wherever they can get it. The success of the war against ISIS, and the prominent role of the Kurds in the effort, raised at least the prospect of such an enclave in northern Syria.

The United States does not support Kurdish separatism in Syria, but the Trump administration did try for months to get Turkey to agree to joint patrols and shared control in northern Syria; the purpose was to prevent further conflict and instability in the region, enable a continued focus on the fight against ISIS, and ensure effective security over captured ISIS soldiers. But it would have been at least a small step toward Kurdish autonomy.

Recep Erdogan was impatient, to say the least, with the American negotiating position. Erdogan is no fool, and he was aware that the Kurds were developing a significant measure of de facto control in northern Syria. Turkey and the Kurds have a long and checkered history, and Erdogan is as opposed to Kurdish separatism and statehood as the Kurds are in favor of it.

So last week Erdogan made clear to President Trump that Turkey would begin the unilateral operation to create the buffer zone. Trump repeated the longstanding American opposition to that move, set conditions for Turkey that are designed to protect American objectives in Syria, and ordered the relocation of American Special Operations to get them out of the area of conflict.

Shortly afterward, Trump tweeted an existential threat to Turkey’s economy, warning Turkey to stick to the conditions that Trump had set.

It’s hard to see how that constituted betrayal of the Kurds. The Kurds are an American ally against ISIS, not Turkey. As far as I am aware, the United States made no commitment to protect the Kurds against the Turkish army, much less assist them in maintaining a degree of independence in northern Syria. Absent such a commitment, the United States was entitled to pursue its own interests in the region, and neither the current president nor the last one has defined those interests in a way that would justify a deepening military engagement in Syria.

Trump could have threatened war with Turkey, as the response to a Turkish incursion into Syria. But there was a high risk that Erdogan would call that bluff. The United States is not prepared for such a conflict, and the implications of it would have extended far beyond Syria and the Middle East. Like it or not, Turkey is still a NATO ally. And there would have been no support in Congress for an authorization of armed conflict with Turkey.

The president could also have immediately imposed sanctions on Turkey, as many in Congress want to do now. That was a viable option, but it would have used America’s biggest remaining leverage point against the Turks, with no guarantee of success. Instead the president chose to use the threat of sanctions to induce Erdogan to observe the humanitarian limits and other conditions the administration has imposed on his incursion into Syria.

I can’t condemn Trump for that decision. It doesn’t seem to be working, but if the threat of sanctions isn’t even enough to restrain how Erdogan conducts the incursion, it would hardly have prevented the operation altogether.

As for relocating the hundred American soldiers to southern Syria, there was no reason to leave a few Special Operations forces in the middle of an armed conflict where they were not authorized to fight and did not have the numbers to make much of a difference anyway. If the soldiers had remained and been killed or wounded in the conflict, Trump would have been criticized for that — and properly so.

I suspect that much of the negative reaction to Trump’s decision springs from frustration with our policy toward Turkey generally. That’s a sentiment I sympathize with completely. The Turks under Erdogan have made a habit of enjoying the benefits that go with NATO membership without accepting even the basic responsibilities of an ally. It’s long past time that the Trump administration devised and executed a plan for showing Erdogan that he cannot have his cake and eat it, too.

I also suspect that many of the critics are frustrated by America’s powerlessness to affect events. I share that frustration as well, and I’ll point out, yet again, that there’s one factor undermining all our efforts around the world. Other nations do not fear the United States as they once did.

Last week, Kevin Williamson asked whether Erdogan can bear to risk war with the United States. The answer is that he can and, unfortunately, he’s not the only one. China has risked war in the South China Sea; Russia has risked war in Ukraine and the Middle East; Iran has risked war in the Persian Gulf; and North Korea, which cannot even afford to keep the lights on at night, has threatened nuclear war against the American people.

These adversaries have judged correctly that they can provoke the United States with relative impunity. They know that America is strong, but they also know that we haven’t used our strength to create hard-power options that presidents can plausibly use against them for limited acts of aggression. Our forces are not present around the world in the numbers and with the kind of capabilities that are a vital component in the psychology of deterrence.

If our government wants to reverse that, our leaders would come to a bipartisan agreement on a sustained buildup of both the size and capabilities of the armed forces. They would commit to spending whatever it takes to increase the Navy not just to 350 ships but to the 400-plus ships we really need for continual presence in the Gulf, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Indo-Pacific. They would buy all the modern fighters the Air Force needs, build the long-range bomber in significant numbers, add a half-dozen heavy brigades to the Army, invest in unmanned air assets and unmanned underwater vehicles, increase the size and sophistication of our missile arsenal, and pour money into CyberCommand, Space Command, and advanced weapons programs such as directed energy and hypersonic aircraft.

To be sure, such a program would take years to complete. But even the signal of it would begin to change attitudes in foreign capitals. Certainly the alarms would go off in Beijing and Tehran; and Recep Erdogan might even get a phone call from his new friends in Moscow, questioning whether it really was such a smart idea to chase the Americans out of Northern Syria.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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