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October 8, 2019

Trump’s Turkish Test on Syria

Gauging the reaction to Trump’s meaningful but relatively small decision on U.S. troops.

President Donald Trump was elected to drop a figurative bomb on the Beltway Establishment — of both parties. Dropping bombs is an ugly business, but there’s no question some good has come of it. However, Trump’s announcement regarding U.S. troops in Syria is one of those things that’s difficult to put in a “good” or “bad” box. So here are some key analysis points.

“I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home and bring them home as rapidly as possible,” Trump said. That may be true, but commitments made by political neophytes in the heat of a campaign are not always wise to keep. It’s certainly not sufficient justification. Trump also reportedly “completely blindsided” the Pentagon with the announcement.

The U.S. is not withdrawing from Syria entirely. The shift of a relative handful of U.S. troops from one part of northeastern Syria is nowhere near as significant a move as Barack Obama’s total abandonment of Iraq (also a campaign promise), which led directly to the creation of the Islamic State. Yet the U.S. has vital interests in containing the ISIS threat, and it is possible that Trump’s move will have an undesirable effect on this front. On the other hand, U.S. troops were in Syria for the sole objective of defeating ISIS. The caliphate is now destroyed, and Trump argues that means it’s time to come home.

Abandoning allies — in this case, the Kurds — is never a good look for America, and it will have foreign-policy ramifications elsewhere. For many years, the Kurds fought and died alongside U.S. troops in the fight against ISIS, while Turkish President Recep Erdogan has threatened to attack the Kurds in northeast Syria. Were U.S. troops the only thing holding him back? “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so,” Trump said. Yet that’s a crass transactional view of foreign policy.

Turkey, which seemingly has the green light for incursions into Syria, is being tested. Trump has taken on the NATO establishment, and Turkey’s membership in that defensive alliance as well as its efforts to join the European Union are now on full display. Either its increasingly authoritarian president will pass the test, or he will fail before the whole world. Trump promised major consequences for Turkey’s economy if it “does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.” That’s ridiculously overwrought Bronx bluster at the wrong time, though Trump (probably) doesn’t actually think that; he’s just being Trump and, again, he’s testing Erdogan.

All of that said, it’s interesting to note an overall dynamic with this news. The Beltway Establishment is almost uniform in harshly criticizing Trump’s move. Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “shortsighted and irresponsible.” Rep. Liz Cheney decried it as “a catastrophic mistake.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it’s a “dangerous decision” that is both “reckless” and “misguided.” Of course, she didn’t seem to mind Obama’s Iraq withdrawal, and she’s too busy running the impeachment charade now to be taken seriously.

But we suspect the average American isn’t so keen on keeping our sons and daughters in harm’s way for a murky objective in Syria — as Trump put it, “to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.” After all, it’s less likely to be the loved ones of members of Congress spilling blood for their country than it is grassroots American Patriots.

In any case, Trump’s Syria decision isn’t black and white; it’s various shades of unappealing gray.

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