Trump’s retreat in Syria turns into a mess
By ISHAAN THAROOR | The Washington Post | Published: October 14, 2019
A week ago, President Donald Trump shocked Washington and announced he wouldn’t impede an imminent Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. Now, in the space of just a few days, his administration is already reaping what it sowed.
Turkey’s incursions at various points along its border with Syria began on Wednesday and, by the weekend, had already plunged the region into chaos. Turkish artillery pounded Syrian Kurdish positions, while footage emerged appearing to show Turkish-affiliated militiamen carrying out grisly roadside executions of Kurdish fighters allied to the United States. Tens of thousands of panicked civilians attempted to flee the Turkish-led advance, raising fears of an eventual exodus into Iraqi Kurdistan, where more than a million people displaced by conflict still live in camps.
Trump, who spent part of the weekend at one of his own golf courses, insisted on Twitter that his country ought to be rid of its commitments in the “quicksand” of the Middle East. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the United States was now in “a very untenable situation” and would evacuate its roughly 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria entirely.
“The order to remove troops came Saturday, toward the end of a chaotic day in which the viability of the U.S. mission in Syria rapidly unraveled after Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel proxies advanced deep into Syrian territory and cut U.S. supply lines,” my colleagues reported. It flew in the face of the Pentagon’s assurances last week that the United States would not “abandon” its Syrian Kurdish partners, who have been on the front lines in the war against Islamic State and borne the brunt of the casualties in a U.S.-led campaign.
But security headaches have only mushroomed amid American maneuvers to withdraw. Hundreds of ISIS detainees may have escaped a prison camp run by beleaguered Syrian Kurdish fighters. Separately, in the late hours of Sunday, reports indicated that Syrian regime forces were also converging on areas once guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led alliance now in Turkey’s crosshairs.
Hung out to dry by the United States, the SDF turned to Syrian President Bashar Assad for protection. A senior Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters that SDF officials met counterparts in the Assad regime at a Russian air base in Syria to hash out a deal. By Sunday evening, the SDF confirmed that, to repel or stall the Turkish invasion, it had invited the regime into areas it had formerly controlled with U.S. protection.
For many on the ground, this seemed an inevitable and relatively welcome outcome. “For the regime to intervene and deploy its forces on the Turkish border is a comforting thought,” a Syrian Kurdish woman, who gave her name as Nowruz, told my colleagues. “If a deal with the regime is what it takes to stop these massacres, then so be it. At the end of the day, we are all Syrians, and the regime is Syrian, too.”
Turkey’s thinly veiled goal in launching the invasion was to smash Rojava, the name for the autonomous enclave in northeastern Syria carved out by the SDF over the past few years. Ankara views the main Syrian Kurdish faction as a direct outgrowth of the PKK, an outlawed Kurdish separatist group that has fought a bloody, decades-long insurgency in Turkey. If northeastern Syria falls back under the security umbrella of Damascus, that may in and of itself be a satisfying outcome for the Turks. Russia’s role in brokering the rapprochement between Assad and the Syrian Kurds after the Turkish invasion may be a sign, analysts suggested, of a tacit Syrian endgame being thrashed out by the Turks and the Russians.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration painted itself as a somewhat helpless bystander. “We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies,” Esper told CBS. In his Sunday tweets, Trump seemed to wave away any interest in the battle and reiterated his position that it’s “very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting” along the Syrian-Turkish border. This followed reports Friday that Turkish artillery appeared to be firing multiple “bracketing” rounds near positions manned by U.S. Special Forces, an astonishing act by a NATO ally that U.S. officials believed was deliberate.
Trump attempted to underscore his point of view with a garbled history lesson, but it only emphasized his lack of genuine engagement with the intricacies of Middle East policy. He brought up a supposed incident in 2017 when “Iraq was going to fight the Kurds in a different part of Syria” and his critics then also urged the United States to stand by their Kurdish allies. But no such event took place. Trump was possibly thinking of the Iraqi government’s seizure of the city of Kirkuk — in Iraq — from the control of fighters affiliated with factions based in the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan.
Whatever the case, some experts argued that the sudden American departure from northeastern Syria was inevitable — if not the chaotic manner in which it’s being carried out. Trump has been determined for months to pull out U.S. forces. The American support of the SDF — no matter the great affection for the Syrian Kurdish fighters among U.S. politicians and military officials — was always in conflict with Washington’s need to keep Turkey on its side.
At the same time, somewhat in opposition to the president, senior Trump officials steered a policy that let the SDF believe it had “indefinite” backing from the United States. They also pursued an ambitious agenda of ending Iranian influence in Syria, a goal that is deeply at odds with Trump’s desire for an exit.
“For three years we have kidded ourselves about this, and those that pushed policies at odds with Trump, working to sketch out a maximalist policy that ignored Ankara’s obvious intent, and the wishes of the world’s most powerful man, should be ashamed,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, to Al-Monitor.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.