Foreign Policy

Trouble Comes After Trump's Syria Move

Turkey invades, and the U.S. president offers some strange rationales for his decision.

Nate Jackson · Oct. 10, 2019

Few moves by President Donald Trump have been as universally condemned as his abandonment of our decades-long Kurdish allies in Syria. In fact, many of the loudest criticisms have come from Trump’s supporters. After pulling out a small number of U.S. troops from northern Syria, Turkey no longer had any deterrent from an incursion into the region. Predictably, it happened almost immediately.

“The Turkish military began an offensive in Syria to seize territory held by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Turkish authorities kicked off the operation on Wednesday despite U.S. warnings that it would punish Turkey if it attacked the Kurdish militants, Washington’s partner in the fight against Islamic State in northeastern Syria.” The Journal then explains, “Turkish officials said their twin goals in the offensive, Turkey’s third in Syria since 2016, were to drive armed Kurdish groups it views as terrorists back from its border and to create a safe zone to relocate millions of Syrians who have fled the eight-year conflict.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the European Union, “If you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, our task is simple: We will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you.”

For his part, President Trump offered, well, indefensible comments. While he called Turkey’s incursion “a bad idea,” he didn’t threaten much more than “tougher sanctions.” Regarding the Kurds, he says they “are fighting for their land,” but “they didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example.” That’s after he explained we didn’t owe the Kurds any continued alliance because we have previously paid them and will continue to help them financially and with weapons. His transactional view of alliances is problematic to say the least, and it will cause other U.S. allies to rethink how much partnership they’re willing to offer. That’s especially true given how critical the Kurds were in defeating the Islamic State — and they gave 11,000 lives to do it. Now, it seems Trump got what he wanted, so he’s dropped the Kurds like… well, fill in your own analogy from Trump’s previous dealings.

Memo to the president: Normandy wasn’t our land either. And notably, the only land we’ve taken in foreign wars over the last century was that needed to bury our dead.

Because of the way Trump speaks about his decisions, they seem impetuous. We’re not convinced that was the case here. After all, the U.S. has been debating troop presence in Syria for the better part of the last decade. And it was disagreement over strategy there that led to the departure of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in December. Trump obviously hasn’t heeded his advisers, but that doesn’t mean he’s acted impetuously.

We’ll reiterate a strategic point we made Tuesday: 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.

But that also leads to another problem with Trump’s move. The Kurds currently hold about 12,000 ISIS fighters (and 70,000 members of their families), but are redirecting personnel toward fighting Turkey, prompting concerns over what happens to those prisoners. Trump bizarrely argued, “They’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go. They want to go back to their homes.” He also says those detainees are Turkey’s responsibility. Maybe he should review Erdogan’s threat about refugees to see how seriously Turkey will take that responsibility — particularly given Turkey’s ties to ISIS.

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