The Trump administration is making a serious mistake. Late Sunday night, it released a statement declaring that Turkey would be “moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria” and that American forces “will no longer be in the immediate area.” The practical result of this statement is obvious: Turkey now has an American permission slip to conduct an invasion into Kurdish territory, kill American allies, and carve out a zone of dominance that will further inflame and complicate one of the world’s most dangerous regions.
There are no easy answers in Syria. While the ISIS caliphate is in ruins, ISIS itself is still potent and active in both Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Civil War grinds on, and the conflict between the Turks and the Kurds has festered for decades. American forces are in a perilous place, but their presence not only helps maintain momentum in the fight against ISIS, it also deters further genocidal bloodshed in northern Syria. The United States should have an exit strategy, but one that neither squanders our tactical gains against ISIS nor exposes our allies to unacceptable retribution.
Trump’s action, unfortunately, raises the risk of both bad outcomes. As Kurds reposition to confront a potential Turkish invasion, they’ll invariably pull back from the fight against ISIS, and while Trump seems to believe (based on Sunday night’s statement) that “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial “Caliphate” by the United States,” the more likely outcome is a loss of control of ISIS detention camps.
In August, the Defense Department’s inspector general released a report detailing how American and allied forces were struggling to contain the ISIS insurgency, noting that ISIS had between 14,000 and 18,000 forces in the field. If Kurdish forces are fighting for their lives against a Turkish invasion, then that creates a power vacuum that ISIS can exploit — with nowhere near sufficient American forces remaining in the region to make up the difference.
Moreover, there is a cost to allowing allies to become cannon fodder. It deters future alliances, and local alliances are particularly important if America hopes to combat jihadists without large-scale troop deployments. Making matters worse, reports indicate that Kurdish forces had actually dismantled defensive fortification at American urging — apparently hoping to defuse tensions with Turkey. We made our ally more vulnerable, then abandoned it to face a superior military force.
It’s important to note that by shifting American forces and exposing the Kurds to attack, Trump is not in any way ending America’s military involvement in Syria. Our troops will still be there. We’ll just move them to enable an attack on our ally.
Trump faced immediate, bipartisan criticism for his decision. Staunch Trump ally Lindsey Graham tweeted that he’d spoken to Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen and intended to introduce “bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if they invade Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces who assisted the U.S. in the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate.” While congressional action may well be necessary, the best course of action is for Trump to reverse his decision and continue to use American power and influence to maintain the uneasy peace along the border between Syria and Turkey.
Late Monday morning Trump tweeted, “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” But this tweet should reassure no one. It does not announce a policy, nor does it announce which actions Trump believes would be “off limits.” In fact, as of Monday afternoon, there were already reports of Turkish strikes in Kurdish territory.
Even if Trump reverses course, that will not “fix” American policy in Syria. American troops are currently occupying territory in a sovereign nation without a clear congressional mandate, the ISIS insurgency continues, and there is no permanent settlement of the Syrian Civil War. There is much work to be done, and as is so often the reality in the Middle East, there is no obviously correct path forward.
Sometimes, however, there are obviously incorrect decisions. Trump made just such a decision Sunday night, and if Turkish military action is already under way, it may be difficult to correct. He should try. Kurdish troops have fought and died alongside Americans, combatting our common jihadist enemy. Moral decency and strategic wisdom dictate that we don’t abandon then now. The Kurds deserve better than still more death, this time at the hands of Turkey’s authoritarian regime.