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Foreign Policy

Talking Turkey With Trump

The Middle East has never been peaceful, and Trump is thinking several chess moves ahead.

National Security Desk · Oct. 18, 2019

“President [Donald] Trump declared Thursday ‘a great day for civilization’ as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced terms of a cease-fire agreement that would end violence between Turkey and Kurds in Syria, following a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara,” reports Fox News.

But, the Associated Press reports, “Fighting continued Friday in and around a northeast Syrian border town at the center of the fight between Turkey and Kurdish forces, despite a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that went into effect overnight.” Yet the ceasefire lasts for all of five days — long enough for the Kurds to evacuate “or else” — and there was only fighting because Trump allowed it in the first place.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-NeverTrump) declared Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds “a bloodstain on the annals of American history.” He accused Trump of caving to Turkey. “Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey!?”

Given how this has all played out so far, the on-its-face analysis is that Trump botched this one badly, just as Romney and countless others have said. But is that all there is to it?

There are a lot more U.S. troops moving around the Middle East than the relative handful Trump pulled from northeastern Syria. In fact, at the same time we were withdrawing those advisers, the Pentagon was moving 3,000 more American troops to Saudi Arabia. And we’ve increased our overall military presence in the Middle East by 14,000 troops since May.

So what’s going on?

 Well, Iran is the elephant in the room these days. With Trump’s withdrawal from Barack Obama’s foolish nuke deal followed by increased sanctions, Tehran is behaving as a cornered and wounded animal.

Why did Trump downplay the Saudis’ cold-blooded murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Because Saudi Arabia is a key piece on the Middle East chess board.

Why did Trump seemingly give a tyrant like Erdogan everything he wanted? Because Turkey is a (shaky) NATO ally and is currently home to dozens of American nuclear weapons, as well as U.S. military personnel at a couple of air bases. Trump has to prevent Ankara from going to Iran or Russia for any more help and alliance than it already is.

Why did Trump abandon the Kurds? Because brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has clearly won that nation’s civil war, and the more he solidifies power — including now allying with the Kurds who were just a few years ago trying to oust him — “the less he’s going to need Russian or Iranian support,” argues Stephen Walt, a Harvard scholar.

In short, it’s not exactly like the Middle East has ever been a peaceful or America-friendly region. Trump’s tactics — and especially his appalling rhetoric — are as far from the status quo as you can get. Plenty of knowledgable and upright people disagree with his moves, but that doesn’t mean they’re impetuous or indefensible moves. At the same time, whatever Trump’s future chess moves are, we’re left to hope that they play out in a way that is beneficial to the U.S. And that’s not very clear at the moment.

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