Foreign Affairs

The Syrian Disaster Artist

On October 6th, President Donald Trump made the abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. In an about-face on Middle Eastern politics by the United States government, the already unstable region was thrown into even more chaos. Trump spoke to Turkey’s President Erdogan and gave him an off-the-record green light for an offensive into Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory. This sent the Kurds reeling as they desperately worked to fight off a much larger military. Thousands of Kurds have become refugees as the Turkish invasion has forced them to flee their homes. The Kurds were instrumental in providing assistance to US troops in the war on terror, and they have now been abandoned by the current administration. Trump has alienated America’s only true allies in a hostile region — a decision which will create a ripple effect with consequences unknown.

The Kurds are an ethnic group living between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. About half live within Syrian borders, and are key players in the current crisis. The Kurds, while culturally autonomous, are a stateless nation. This means they are not recognized globally as having a territory they have sovereignty over. In the aftermath of World War I, they were promised territory to establish a Kurdish state, but this promise was never fulfilled. Ever since, the Kurds have been struggling to assert any kind of autonomy in the region. Turkish officials are uneasy with the Kurds rejecting ties of citizenship with Turkey in favor of embracing their Kurdish identity. This has led to hostility and violence between the militant Kurdish group the PKK and Turkey. The PKK has been labeled a terrorist group for their attacks on Turkey. At the best of times, there has been an uneasy peace between Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds. However, the Middle East has been embroiled in a bitter conflict for many years now, with no clear end in sight.

American involvement in Middle Eastern politics began as a response to the September 11th terror attacks. The war on terror, and furthermore the war on ISIS, has been fought in large part by Kurdish soldiers who have operated as the United States’ ground force. Before Trump ordered the withdrawal early last month, only about 1,000 American troops were on the ground in Syria; more Americans haven’t been deployed overseas because our partnership with the Kurds made it unnecessary. Accomplished fighters, the Kurds were largely responsible for toppling the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and neutralizing their power in the region. 

Trump’s decision to leave Syria now means that the Kurds are stranded in a contentious region with no backup from a western power. Unfortunately, the same can be said for our own troops. Although Trump framed his decision to withdraw as a move to bring soldiers home from the Middle East, this is a misconstrual of the facts. In reality, there are plenty of Americans remaining overseas, who are now without the protection of the Kurds and the comfort of full US governmental support. This mistake has now given the United States the image of the untrustworthy ally, a perception which could harm us on the global stage in ways not yet comprehensible. The speed with which Trump’s decision came lead foreign policy analysts both at home and abroad to believe it was not given the proper thought, further destroying the credibility of the American government. Compounding America’s new image as a diplomatic wild card is the fact that Trump didn’t seek advice from his top Syrian advisor

American intervention did not create the initial instability in the Middle East, but it certainly didn’t help the situation. Backing out before any mess is cleaned up paints America as a fair weather ally. The withdrawal has also forced Americans to question whether or not the military has unfinished business in the Middle East. The assasination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, allowed Trump to claim that the terror organization has been defeated and that the United States no longer has a purpose in the region. Unfortunately for the president, even his own administration opposes this view. Particularly in light of the taunting comments made in the press conference announcing Al-Baghdadi’s death, it is foolish to think ISIS has been defeated once and for all. Further muddying the waters for Trump is the National Security Agency’s admission that pulling troops out of Syria endangered the assasination attempt. Every attempt made by President Trump thus far to defend his actions in the Middle East have been struck down by his own supporters.

Trump’s retreat from Syria has created a power vacuum in the Middle East that Russia is all too happy to fill, ushering in a new era in global politics. The United States now has limited to no influence on Iran or Iraq, and American holdings overseas are far more vulnerable to attack. Most significantly, Russia has dramatically expanded its sphere of influence and become the primary power in the region. Putin has already worked to control the borders of Syria and mediate any disputes that may occur between the Turks and the Kurds, meaning our former allies are now more likely to welcome Russian intervention. With one incomprehensible decision, The United States has betrayed an ally, taken the Turkish view on Kurdish extremists, provided Russia the opening it needed for expansion into the Middle East, and stranded its own soldiers abroad.

At any moment in history, this Middle Eastern move is incomprehensible, but it is doubly so in light of Trump’s current political situation. He is already under investigation for allegedly asking Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and threatening to withhold Congressionally approved aid if they failed to comply. The president has been daring the House Democrats to formally investigate him for his actions, and they now formally have. Given the sensitive political climate, the president’s already shocking reversal is even more baffling. Why would he give his opponents more evidence of his instability and sensitivity to Russian interests? 

Perhaps more significantly for Trump, the Kurdish betrayal has managed to alienate the very people he needs to defend him in the upcoming impeachment process. The Syrian move was criticized across the board, drawing official condemnations from the EU and long-time Trump defender Mitch McConnell. Losing support, however small, in Congress could prove disastrous in the long run for Donald Trump.

If there is a compelling reason behind the decision to leave Syria, Trump has failed to share it with the rest of the world. On its surface, it seems to be a decision that brings net harm to us and a net benefit to Russia and Turkey. Trump has thrown away a long time American ally and one of the only footholds the U.S. had in the region, leaving it vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence. The move has unified Democrats and Republicans against the president in a time where support is critical to his survival. Trump, much like his counterparts in the United Kingdom, has made an irrevocable decision without thought to the consequences. The American people can only hope he enlightens us with his rationale soon.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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