In a surprise decision, the United States announced yesterday that it would abandon its Kurdish allies in northern Syria. The Kurds, who have been staunch allies of the US in the wars against ISIS and Saddam Hussein, are an ethnic minority whose homeland encompasses parts of Iraq and Turkey as well as Syria.
The US withdrawal paves the way for an expected invasion of northern Syria by Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. PBS reports that the unusual late Sunday announcement by the White House followed a telephone call between Presidents Trump and Erdogan. It is not known whether the phone call involved former Vice President Joe Biden or his son, Hunter, who have been frequent topics of conversation for President Trump recently.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said that U.S. troops “will not support or be involved in the operation” and “will no longer be in the immediate area.” The fate of America’s Kurdish allies was not mentioned in the statement.
This is not the first time that Trump has considered abandoning the Kurds to their neighbors. Last year, Trump’s announcement that he planned to withdraw American troops from Syria spurred the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis. In an interview with CBS last month, Mattis said that he resigned to protest what he saw as a serious strategic error, comparing the proposed Syria withdrawal to Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq. Obama’s decision led directly to the rise of ISIS.
“We need to maintain enough influence there that we don’t see the same thing that happened when we withdrew from Iraq,” Mattis said. “This is how I saw the strength of America — that we keep our alliances together, and keep them tight.”
Sadly, Trump’s premature evacuation of Syria follows a recent American tradition of abandoning our allies. The Kurds will be added to a long list that includes South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Iraq as well as Central American governments. Other US allies such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia, Taiwan, and even our NATO partners must be wondering how committed the Trump Administration is to them.
The unsettling feeling that even written treaty commitments are not ironclad is likely very common this morning given President Trump’s tendency to renegotiate treaties at the drop of a tweet. Trump foreign policy calls to mind the Darth Vader’s words from The Empire Strikes Back: “I am altering the deal, pray I don’t alter it any further. “
Even loyal Trump apologist Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had sharp words for the president. On Twitter, Graham called Trump’s reversal on Syria ” disaster in the making,” noting that it would aid ISIS, push the Kurds into Iran’s orbit, hurt US relations with Turkey, and “be a stain on America’s honor.”
In reality, Donald Trump’s abandonment of our Kurdish allies is nothing new. The president opposed intervention in Syria going back at least to President Obama’s aborted 2013 plan to retaliate for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. During the 2016 campaign, Trump criticized Hillary Clinton’s plan for a no-fly zone and advocated having the US leave the fighting to the Russians and Syrians. Foreign Policy warned that such a plan would “end up empowering extremists and causing chaos across the Middle East.”
The new policy of retreat would seem difficult to square with Trump’s reputation as a fighter, but that reputation has always been more directed at domestic political opponents than at foreign powers. Trump’s “America first” philosophy has almost always been one of accommodation and appeasement. Like Obama, Trump’s focus has been on bringing the troops home regardless of the cost.
In the case of Syria, the cost is likely to be paid in Kurdish blood. Since the blood spilled will not be that of Americans, many will be fine with that. But there is a greater cost to America as well. Our allies will be less trustful of our commitments and our adversaries will know that they just need to bide their time.