Syria: Does sudden Trump move undermine US reliability?

Why We Wrote This

What makes for a dependable ally? The U.S.-Kurdish alliance was successful against a common enemy, ISIS. Now President Trump is being criticized for a sudden move that exposes the Kurds in northern Syria.

Hussein Malla/AP/File
A U.S. soldier on his armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, northern Syria, April 4, 2018.

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President Donald Trump has long made clear his aim to get the United States fully and finally out of its long Middle East wars. Any move to remove U.S. troops from harm’s way fits with his end goal. 

But the sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria was a surprise, oddly announced in a late Sunday night White House statement, after an earlier call Mr. Trump had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It raised questions about U.S. commitments to a longtime military ally – in this case the Kurds who were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS in Syria – and about the reliability of U.S. national security policy. 

While analyst Benjamin Friedman argues that, “The interests of the Kurds should not … be used as a pretext to keep troops in Syria forever,” he says he deplores the impulsive manner of the decision. And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close national security adviser of Mr. Trump's, decried “the impulsive decision by the president” as “shortsighted and irresponsible.” Calling in to “Fox & Friends,” he said the decision would be “a stain on America’s honor.”

President Donald Trump’s surprise Sunday night decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syrian territory and acquiesce to a Turkish offensive there set off alarms in Washington that America was abandoning its Kurdish allies – and opening the door to an ISIS comeback.

It could also be seen as Trump being Trump.

The president has long made clear his aim to get the United States fully and finally out of its long Middle East wars. Any move to remove U.S. troops from potential harm’s way fits with his end goal.

Moreover, he has also displayed a readiness to make foreign policy decisions off-the-cuff and based on his own gut instincts – even if against the advice of his national security circle, as seems to be the case here.

But the withdrawal – oddly announced in a late Sunday White House statement, after an earlier call Mr. Trump had with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – also raises questions about U.S. commitments to a longtime military ally and about the formulation and reliability of U.S. national security policy.

The U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State in northern Syria. But the Kurds’ aspirations for regional autonomy have complicated the relations between the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey, which sees the Kurds’ presence on its border as a threat and labels their fighters terrorists.

Concerned that the Kurds face an imminent Turkish onslaught with U.S. forces out of the way, both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders expressed alarm Monday over the president’s decision and what looked like the abandonment of longtime U.S. goals in Syria.

The uproar prompted a White House phone briefing with reporters late Monday afternoon, in which a senior administration official insisted the president’s decision was neither abandonment of the Kurds nor the U.S. withdrawal of its last troops from Syria – something the president himself alluded to in tweets Monday.

According to the official, President Erdoğan made it clear in Sunday’s phone call that Turkey’s military operation into northern Syria was imminent – and as a result, the president decided to reassign U.S. special forces there to other areas away from potential fighting. Pentagon sources said about 100 U.S. personnel were relocated.

“For anyone to characterize [the president’s decision to move those troops] as somehow being a green light for a massacre is irresponsible and doesn’t comport with the reality,” the senior official said.

Diverging interests

Some U.S. policy analysts were quick to defend the essence of Mr. Trump’s decision, if not the manner in which it was made. 

“The U.S. military should be quickly withdrawn from Syria – in fact, it should have entirely left already,” says Benjamin Friedman, policy director for Defense Priorities, a Washington group that argues for a strong defense posture that avoids U.S. entanglement in foreign conflicts.

As for the Kurds, Mr. Friedman adds that “the U.S. cannot guarantee the safety of the Kurds short of war with Turkey. The interests of the Kurds should not take precedence over U.S. interests ... nor be used as a pretext to keep troops in Syria forever.” 

But others – among them some of the most faithful advocates for Mr. Trump’s foreign policy – warn that the Syria decision will weaken the U.S. image as a reliable ally and only buoy its adversaries in the region – from Iran to the remnants of ISIS that remain in the region and which have recently shown renewed signs of life.

“President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey and abandon the Kurds is a betrayal of a key partner in our fight against ISIS,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement Monday, noting that the president “took this step against the advice of our diplomats and military leaders.”

“The Trump Doctrine continues,” he added. “Abandon allies and embolden adversaries.”

Perhaps more striking was the number of Republican leaders who questioned the president’s decision, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Trump administration’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. 

And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close national security adviser of Mr. Trump’s, blasted what he called “the impulsive decision by the president” as “shortsighted and irresponsible.”

Calling in Monday to air his dismay on “Fox & Friends,” a morning news show Mr. Trump is known to watch, Senator Graham added that the decision would go down as “a stain on America’s honor.”

“Ridiculous endless wars”

Since the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump has been clear about his objective to get the U.S. out of what he calls “these ridiculous endless wars.” Concerning Syria, he abruptly announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops last December – only to be convinced to leave a rump force of about 1,000 troops to work with the Kurdish-led forces in the battle to defeat ISIS.

But that precipitous decision led to the departure of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. And there were signs this time around that Mr. Trump again made his decision on his own – and soon after a phone call with a foreign leader, Mr. Erdoğan, and without the input of national security advisers.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters pose for a photo in Baghouz, Syria, after the Kurdish-led SDF declared the area free of Islamic State militants on March 23, 2019.

As recently as Friday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had “made very clear” to his Turkish counterpart that the U.S. would not tolerate any unilateral military action in northern Syria by Turkish forces. Then over the weekend, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson reiterated that any Turkish military action “would be a grave concern” for the U.S. because it would “undermine our shared interest of a secure northeast Syria and the enduring defeat of ISIS.” 

But Sunday night the White House released a statement saying the president had spoken with Mr. Erdoğan, and that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.”

The statement went on to say that “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation,” and that U.S. forces, “having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.” 

In the call with reporters Monday, the senior official noted that the U.S. had been successful for two years in dissuading Turkey from launching an attack on Kurdish forces in northern Syria, but that Turkey was now adamant about proceeding. Turkey has a large military and is a NATO ally, the official noted, suggesting Mr. Trump had abandoned efforts to further forestall a Turkish operation.

And while Mr. Trump may not have announced the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops from Syria at this time, his references to that objective in tweets Monday sowed confusion about whether or not he had made that decision.

Gift to adversaries

Some analysts see the U.S. departure from Syria as a gift to a range of America’s adversaries, from Russia, and Syria’s autocratic President Bashar al-Assad, to the approximately 15,000 ISIS fighters that the Pentagon estimates still operate in Syria and Iraq.

And then there is Iran, whose largely unchecked military aspirations across the Middle East, including in Syria, have consistently been labeled by the Trump administration as “malign activity” presenting the strategically critical Middle East with perhaps its top security challenge. 

The U.S. departure from northern Syria, some analysts note, could pave the way for Iranian forces to move in and complete a long-sought strategic asset – a land bridge from Iran and across friendly territory (in Iraq and Syria) to Iranian allies in Lebanon.

Mr. Friedman of Defense Priorities says it was never realistic to think that the modest force of U.S. troops remaining in Syria would be able to take on the long list of strategic goals that seemed to be assigned to it.

Noting that the list included “checking the Iranians, pressuring Assad, protecting the Kurds, and going after whatever ISIS remnants we could,” he said it was “ambitious to say the least, especially with 1,000 troops.”

Still, even though he supports the president’s efforts to end the U.S. military presence in Syria, Mr. Friedman says he deplores both the impulsive nature of Sunday’s decision as well as the broader chaotic national security decision-making process behind it.

“The problem is not the goal of swift U.S. withdrawal, contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington,” he says. “The problem is the muddled national security process that failed to remove U.S. forces after the complete defeat of the ISIS caliphate.”

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