This is a mess.
On October 6th, President Trump impulsively announced a drawdown of U.S. forces along Syria’s border with Turkey.
He did so apparently after consulting with just one person — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long sought to send troops into the area.
Trump did not discuss the move in advance with his top military, diplomatic and intelligence advisors, nor with members of the U.S. Congress or other allies abroad. And he certainly did not check in with the leaders of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front, which has fought alongside Americans in northern Syria for years.
Nope. Trump just followed his gut — and in so doing he upended U.S. military strategy in the region and threw our Middle East policy into turmoil.
Why did he risk all this?
Maybe because Erdogan is his “friend.” More likely, it is just because he wanted to show that he intends to follow through on a campaign pledge to end — what he has called — America’s “endless wars.”
And it seems no American military presence is too small to escape his attention.
There are only 1000 U.S. troops currently in northern Syria, largely to prevent ISIS from regenerating in the region and to act as a counterweight to Iran and Russia. The Americans are deployed mainly to support the SDF, which has done the bulk of the fighting and dying in combating IS.
Erdogan, however, contends there are Kurdish “terrorists” in Syria with links to a separatist movement in his own country. And as the U.S. troops come out, the Turks can move in.
This is not the first time Trump has decided to pull Americans out of Syria after a call with the Turkish leader.
He ordered a unilateral withdrawal late last year but ultimately changed course after a barrage of criticism both at home and abroad. Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned over the matter. So did Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS.
They are now gone from the inner circle of presidential advisers and this time there was no one to block the White House from issuing an announcement on a Sunday night that the president had ordered a pullback to begin.
The Syrian Kurds were furious and accused the Trump administration of betrayal. Before long, members of Congress from both major political parties started to weigh in as well and they did so with a rare display of bipartisanship.
One of the first members of Congress to speak out was Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Marine veteran who served in Iraq. Shortly after the White House announcement, he tweeted: “Allowing Turkey to move into northern Syria is one of the most destabilizing moves we can do in the Middle East. The Kurds will never trust America again. They will look for new alliances or independence to protect themselves.”
President Trump responded the next morning with his own Twitter post: “I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
It was a message that focused more on the drawdown than the aftermath. “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out,” Trump added.
Instead of blunting the criticism, it appears his tweets only made the situation worse. Soon, leading Republicans were echoing the concerns raised by Congressman Gallego.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority party leader in the Senate said, “A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”
And then there was this tweet from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, perhaps one of the president’s strongest allies in the legislature: “So sad. So dangerous. President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam. They are NOT tired of fighting us.”
As the criticism mounted, the White House began to dial it all back.
A senior official briefed reporters in a conference call in an effort to calm the waters. He said Trump did not offer Erdogan a “green light” to go after Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Meanwhile, the president posted one of the strangest tweets of his tenure in office:
“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!)”
That is an odd threat to level at a NATO ally.
But what also drew a lot of attention here was the “great and unmatched wisdom” line, which critics said sounded more like something that would come from a tzar or a king from another century, than the kind of language one would expect from the President of the United States.
And it goes without saying that all this is happening against the backdrop of a presidential impeachment inquiry into whether Donald Trump has reached out to foreign countries for his own political gain.
The very same Republicans that he will need to win an impeachment fight — the ones that have been his defenders throughout his presidency — are the same ones that are now furious about the twists and turns of his Middle East policy.
They agree with the experts that when it comes to this region, you always have to consider the longterm consequences of any course of action.
Consider the well-informed thoughts of Brett McGurk, who resigned as Trump’s envoy to the coalition combating ISIS. He stresses that Syria alone presents a “complex matter with no easy or magic formulas.”
In a long Twitter missive, McGurk —who also served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama— said “if anyone still believes Trump cares about Syria, they’re mistaken. He doesn’t, and his erratic swings heighten risk to our personnel on the ground.”
And then he went to the heart of the matter:
“The value of an American handshake is depreciating. Trump said today we could ‘crush ISIS again’ if it regenerated. With who? What allies would sign up? Who would fight on his assurances?”
Who will trust Trump now?