Trump Is Making Syria, and the Middle East, More Dangerous

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The roughly 1,000 American troops stationed in Syria find themselves in an impossible situation, by order of their commander in chief. They are now caught between the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad, an unrepentant war criminal who has used poison gas against his own people, and the Turkish military — a NATO ally — which has already rained down artillery shells near positions held by American soldiers.

When Donald Trump won the presidency on a promise to end “endless wars,” it was always unspoken that doing so would mean to some extent abandoning allies, like the Kurdish forces that helped devastate the Islamic State, or the Afghan government in Kabul. But surely putting America first never meant leaving American soldiers behind. The Times reported Monday that removing the American troops from Syria may require an airlift, a move that may also be needed to relocate the estimated 50 American tactical nuclear weapons housed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

Dozens of civilians and combatants were killed in fighting, according to the BBC, when Turkey struck south into Kurdish-held areas of Syria over the weekend, an operation that was greenlit by the White House. Islamic State fighters and their family members, who had been held in a detention camp by Kurdish forces, have scattered to the winds, The Times reports. The Kurds, under fire from Turkish forces, quickly allied with the Syrian government, which sent its own Russian-backed army north.

One thousand decisions led the United States to find itself refereeing the border between Syria and Turkey, but only one decision — made abruptly just over a week ago by President Trump after a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — led to the chaos and bloodletting that has gushed across the region in the past few days.

That decision may have been made in the service of a coherent grander strategy, but there is little evidence of it. Mr. Trump allowed the invasion and then threatened to destroy the Turkish economy if it went too far, without specifying how far that might be. He doubled tariffs on imported Turkish steel on Monday as the Treasury Department and Capitol Hill discussed options for an economic counterpunch to the invasion Mr. Trump only just approved. Adding to the confusion of the situation, Vice President Mike Pence late Monday said Mr. Trump had asked the Turkish government for a cessation of hostilities.

The threat to destroy the Turkish economy was made, as is Mr. Trump’s wont, in a tweet that was such a departure from historical presidential pronouncements that it is worth quoting: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, 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!).”

No wise person would take such headlong action in one of the planet’s most volatile and contested regions. As for limits, it is unclear what those are.

On the ground, Syrian Arab forces allied with the Turkish military executed at least two Kurdish prisoners on Saturday, filmed the killings and blasted the images across social media. Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted in an interview Sunday that “we see a humanitarian crisis emerging.” Two United States officials told The Times that the precipitous withdrawal of American forces forced them to leave behind five dozen “high value” Islamic State prisoners. The situation is sure to get worse, especially for the estimated two million civilians living in northern Syria.

“They trusted us, and we broke that trust,” an Army officer who has worked alongside the Kurds in northern Syria told The Times. “It’s a stain on the American conscience.”

The decision makes as little sense strategically as it does morally. American allies from Berlin to Riyadh are alarmed. “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte,” Mr. Trump wrote almost flippantly on Twitter on Monday. Yet at the same time that Mr. Trump has signaled that the Middle East should be someone else’s problem and has talked about bringing the troops home, he recently ordered another 3,000 to Saudi Arabia to deter Iran — which, like Russia and the Syrian government, has now only been emboldened by his flight from Syria.

History is littered with instances of one-time allies abandoned by Washington to their fate — the Bay of Pigs invasion; the fall of South Vietnam; numerous internal uprisings, like Hungary in 1956, that were fanned by the United States only to be smothered when aid, implicit or explicit, was withheld. The United States has abandoned the Kurds — a stateless people who live in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Iran — on numerous occasions in just the past half century. The most infamous of these betrayals came when Saddam Hussein attacked them with poison gas in 1988, and the Reagan administration protected the Iraqi government from congressional sanctions.

Yet the decision by the Trump administration to quit Syria stands apart because the status quo was entirely sustainable. American forces were not taking high numbers of casualties. The region under control of the Kurds was largely quiet. Islamic State fighters were penned up. There wasn’t major international pressure for the United States to withdraw. If the Trump administration had wanted to acquiesce to Mr. Erdogan’s pleadings to let Turkey take stronger actions in service of its own national security, it could surely have managed such steps in a far more measured and coordinated manner.

Several Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Liz Cheney, expressed outrage at the overnight betrayal of the Kurds. (Ms. Cheney went so far as to suggest that the Turkish military launched its invasion because Mr. Trump is weakened by an impeachment inquiry over his wielding of presidential power.) But they have only their party to blame for resisting any effort to hold the president accountable for his erratic navigation of American foreign policy or to temper policy decisions that have landed migrant children in cages at home and left longstanding alliances in tatters overseas.

If Mr. Trump hoped to improve relations with Turkey (where two Trump towers license his name, by the way) then he got that wrong, too. Anyone who could think half a step ahead would realize that any such warming would surely be chilled by the inevitable economic sanctions. In the wake of the invasion, the European Union opted to limit arms sales to Turkey, while sanctions under consideration on Capitol Hill could shut off flows of weapons, spare parts and ammunition from the United States.

At the moment, America’s priority must be to protect its soldiers in the field and secure its nuclear weapons. Turkey must understand that NATO will not come to its aid if its adventurism in Syria spins out of control and that the international community will reject any effort to dilute the Kurdish population by moving in other ethnic groups.

A few days ago there were valid options to answer the question of what the United States could do in response to the invasion. Harsh sanctions and other actions might have compelled Turkey to pull back, allowing for American troops to restore the status quo. Now the only alternative to Turkish control of the north is Mr. Assad’s control of the north. America’s alliance with Kurdish forces is probably dead, and it’s hard to see what role the United States can play in Syria or in the fight against the Islamic State. They say if you break it, you own it. But maybe all the United States has done is break it.

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