As Turkish forces invade northeastern Syria, President Trump continues to flip-flop between concern and indifference. Liam Glen writes on the consequences of his actions and rhetoric.
When President Donald Trump announced his surprise decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria, he should have known the massive stakes of the issue. Yet, as with most issues of his presidency, the response has been confused, with key developments largely coming from Twitter.
To his credit, the president has shown some concern over the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish-majority region, currently controlled by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
This includes a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” and a bizarre letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan including the line “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”
However, he has also defended his withdrawal by denigrating the SDF. He downplayed their alliance by the US by pointing out that they did not fight in World War II. While true, this is hardly something on which to base current geopolitical decisions.
In more recent history, according to The Atlantic, the SDF suffered 11,000 casualties in the fight against ISIS, compared to only five by US forces.
Trump also repeatedly described the Kurds as “not angels,” again showing his willingness to characterize entire ethnic groups by simple adjectives.
All of this culminated with a meltdown during a meeting on the issue with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. It is evident that the president is incapable of clear thinking on the subject, and it is having dire consequences.
The Anti-War Façade
Trump has tried to frame his decision as deescalating conflict in the Middle East, but this ignores the reality of the situation. He is not bringing home the 1,000 US troops in Syria, but simply re-deploying 50 in northern Syria to make room for the Turkish invasion.
Around the same time, his administration has assigned 1,800 new troops to Saudi Arabia. If the SDF are not angels, one can only imagine what adjectives would be appropriate for the Saudi leadership.
US intervention is usually criticized for vainly seeking to create democratic institutions from scratch in other countries. But the residents of northern Syria have already built a functioning society. US troops are not engaging in wanton nation-building, but rather lending support to an ally.
Built on principles of secularism and gender equality, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is the perfect bulwark against terrorism and sectarianism in the region. But as President Trump flubs his justifications for withdrawal, the Turkish invasion, led by the Islamist Erdogan, continues.
The Turkish government has a long history of human rights abuses against the Kurdish population within its borders, including a brutal campaign against rebels between 2015 and 2016 that largely targeted civilians.
Already, Turkish-backed jihadist forces in Syria have been accused of human rights violations including the execution of nine civilians. Among the dead was politician Hevrin Khalaf, known for her advocacy of Arab and Christian minorities in the region.
Facing the Consequences
It is clear that neither Trump nor Erdogan expected such a large backlash from their actions. Now, however, fear of potential consequences may be enough to make them change course.
Republican lawmakers are usually unflinching in their defense of Trump’s controversies, but this only works so long as he is advancing their policy agenda. The betrayal of a US ally, creating a power vacuum that benefits Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a step too far for many.
Trump ally Lindsey Graham promised to become the president’s “worst nightmare” if he does not stand up for the SDF. While impeachment proceedings are drawing the parties further apart, a supermajority in the House of Representatives voted to condemn the withdrawal.
It is thankful that Trump has a propensity for flip-flopping, as it is not too late for him to make true on his threats to punish Turkish actions. If he takes real steps to end the invasion, it could save countless lives. But it must be remembered that this entire crisis would not have happened in the first place if not for his impulsive and incoherent foreign policy.