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America’s Predictable, Avoidable, Unnecessary Syrian Disaster

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Never has a foreign policy decision gone so bad, so quickly, for such bad reasons

In the week since President Trump ordered the U.S. military to stand aside and allow Turkey to invade northern Syria, thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters escaped detention, America’s Kurdish allies have faced overwhelming attack, a growing number of civilians have been summarily executed, Turkey fired on U.S. military positions, and Syrian government forces — along with their Russian allies — have advanced. The United States looks weak, immoral, untrustworthy, confused.

None of this had to happen. No event forced it to happen. The only reason it happened is Donald Trump.

A Difficult Situation

After a multi-year campaign to dislodge ISIS from its self-proclaimed “caliphate,” America’s local allies — the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who led the ground fighting and suffered nearly 11,000 casualties — controlled northeast Syria (yellow on the map).

(Syria Live Map — January 2019)

It was a precarious situation. The United States was effectively guaranteeing the quasi-independence of a Kurdish region beset by enemies: Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces to the southwest (red on the map), eager to recapture all of Syria for dictator Bashar al Assad, and Turkey to the north. The Turks are especially hostile to the Kurds, who they see as a national security threat.

Turkey’s concerns are not entirely unfounded. A large portion of the SDF comes from the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia with ties to the PKK, a Turkey and Iraq-based Kurdish group that’s on the U.S. State Department’s official list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The U.S. knew this when it put together the SDF, deeming the fight against ISIS more important.

I’ve argued that the United States should stay in this part of Syria indefinitely, standing in the way of the combatants — none of whom want to risk killing American military personnel — while working towards a diplomatic compromise that would allow the Kurds some autonomy, but not independence.

Critics who denounce this as “forever war” grossly overstate the cost, as if staying in Syria was the equivalent of invading Iraq or Vietnam. But the U.S. was maintaining relative stability with just 1,000–2,000 troops — in contrast to 543,000 at peak in Vietnam and 176,000 at peak in Iraq — and they did not face significant risks. Only 10 Americans have died in Syria since 2014, two from causes unrelated to combat.

But even if you disagree and advocate withdrawal — and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to worry that a diplomatic solution is impossible, which would leave the U.S. babysitting an increasingly risky situation destined for collapse — the way Trump did it made things so much worse, for no good reason.

Avoidable Disaster

After a phone call with Turkey’s President Erdogan, Trump ordered the U.S. military to retreat from some positions and otherwise remain in bases as Turkey began attacking. It surprised everyone, including the Pentagon, which Trump did not consult. The U.S. had started conducting joint surveillance flights and ground patrols with Turkey, and convinced the SDF to dismantle fortifications near the Turkish border, in a compromise that acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate concerns while also protecting the Kurds. Whether out of ignorance or malice, Trump threw that away, screwing over both the U.S. military and America’s local ally.

To resist the Turkish invasion, the SDF moved forces away from guarding tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners. Shortly thereafter, many escaped. This was easy to predict and experts warned of it in advance. Trump ignored them, or didn’t care.

Even worse, the U.S. military failed to remove 60 “high-value” ISIS detainees. Turkey quickly seized a roadway the American troops planned to use for the extraction, and the president’s orders told them to allow Turkish movements and avoid the fighting.

Trump dismissed concerns of ISIS jail breaks with “well they’re going to be escaping to Europe,” as if that somehow makes it okay. The November 2015 Paris attacks, in which ISIS operatives killed 131 and injured over 400 more, galvanized the international intervention in Syria. Though I think Trump’s statement was a desperate attempt to save face, the only interests served by more terrorist attacks in Europe are ISIS’s (and possibly Russia’s).

In the chaos, fighters from Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a Syrian militia allied with Turkey, have captured and executed Kurdish civilians in what U.N. officials are calling war crimes. Among them was Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, who was dragged from her car, raped, and stoned to death. The perpetrators posted video to social media.

The U.S. military suffered two additional humiliations. Turkey shot at an American position, “bracketing” a known U.S. outpost with artillery — an intimidation tactic designed to get the Americans to withdraw. This is the first time a NATO country (!) has fired on the United States. Turkey’s gamble that America’s Commander in Chief would let it slide has proven correct.

And the Kurds, in their desperation, cut a deal with Assad and Russia, allowing them into the territory U.S.-backed forces took from ISIS. As American troops fled, Russian mercenaries tweeted gloating videos of themselves inside recently abandoned U.S. bases.

The U.S. didn’t have to withdraw, but if it was going to, the president could have at least given the military time to prepare, to extract high-value ISIS prisoners, and to warn America’s allies. All he had to do was tell Erdogan “okay, we’ll leave if you give us a month.” Instead, he spurned the experts, ignored the foreign policy decision-making process, and gave Erdogan a green light.

In fairness, the military and foreign policy establishment deserve some of the blame. Trump originally ordered withdrawal in December, but the Pentagon and State Department resisted — Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the coalition against ISIS, both resigned in protest — and the president reversed course. If America’s military and diplomats had taken the time to prepare for withdrawal instead of operating as if Trump would agree to stay indefinitely, they could have avoided some of this disaster.

But most of that was the president’s fault too. His December decision, like his order this month, came out of nowhere following a call with Erdogan. He didn’t consult with U.S. military leaders, his own foreign policy appointees, or American allies. An uproar back home warning of exactly what’s happening now, including from Republicans in Congress, got Trump to suspend the order.

Why’d He Do It?

Trump lied that ISIS was “totally defeated,” but it’s true the group suffered significant setbacks. Now he’s thrown them a lifeline.

Trump claimed he’s “trying to end ENDLESS WARS,” but his decision transformed a relatively stable situation into violent chaos. And with Turkey, Syria, and Russia vowing to contest the territory America abandoned, there are heightened risks of an interstate conflict that could easily pull the U.S. back in.

Trump vowed to strengthen the military and put America first. But the military is humiliated, and the winners of his Syria decision are Turkey, ISIS, Assad, Iran, and Russia.

Trump promised to get the U.S. out of the Middle East. But the same week he ordered 1,000 American troops out of Syria he sent 3,000 to Saudi Arabia.

Trump frequently denounces helping other countries without getting paid in return. But the net result of his Syria policy has been spending billions of dollars to destroy the ISIS caliphate for Assad and Russia, get thousands of Kurds killed for Turkey, and expand Turkish territory.

The president has business interests in Turkey, and Erdogan attended the launch of Trump Towers Istanbul. Is that why Trump did what Erdogan asked?

I have no idea. But the question is unavoidable, which is a good reason why presidents should not have conflicts of interest.

The president collects a lot of money from the Saudi royal family, and helped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) cover for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On MBS’s orders, Saudi operatives killed Khashoggi in Turkey, and Erdogan demanded restitution. Is that why Trump did what Erdogan asked?

I have no idea. But the question is unavoidable, which is a good reason why presidents should not have conflicts of interest.

And now that the disastrous, though widely-predicted consequences of his decision have become clear, and Congressional Republicans are openly criticizing him, Trump issued an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkey. That’s right, he’s punishing Turkey for doing what he okayed a week ago. It’s incoherent.

This is what happens when you give control of U.S. foreign policy to a corrupt, willfully ignorant liar.

If he’s reelected, expect more.

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Thanks !

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