History repeats itself, as Karl Marx once wrote, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In a farcical return to the chaos that resulted from a December 2018 phone call between the U.S. and Turkish presidents, Donald Trump has once again announced the pullback of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria, sending Washington’s entire policy establishment into damage control mode.
To prove he was not pushed around by or caving into the demands of Turkey’s Islamist strongman, Trump then tweeted threats to “totally destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy, echoing his tweet to “devastate Turkey economically” the last time around. So far, the only thing he seems to have destroyed is U.S. credibility in the Middle East and beyond.
Trump’s latest move rewards a fellow NATO member for behaving badly, as he has done multiple times before when dealing with Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has held U.S. citizens and State Department employees hostage, helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions at the height of Washington’s efforts to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions between 2012 and 2014, and most recently procured the Russian-made S-400 air defense system despite frequent warnings against doing so.
So far, Erdogan has miraculously walked away without any major diplomatic pushback, sanctions, or fines from the United States owing to an inexplicable leniency that belies Trump’s tough talk. Even as the U.S. president was reinforcing his Turkish counterpart’s sense of impunity, he was selling out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprising Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Syriac Christians, and Yazidis who have been key partners in defeating the Islamic State while sacrificing more than 11,000 of their soldiers in the effort.
So far, Erdogan has miraculously walked away without any major diplomatic pushback, sanctions, or fines from the United States
Trump’s hasty action risks undermining all the gains that U.S. special operations forces and their SDF partners have secured to defeat the Islamic State. A recent report by the U.S. Defense Department inspector general warned that the Islamic State “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria.” There are further credible reports of Islamic State efforts “to replenish its ranks from members held in detention facilities.”
Given that these terrorist detainees are dispersed in a number of facilities, some of which are deep in Syrian territory, there is no way that Turkish troops and their proxies can take control of such facilities from the SDF in an orderly fashion. The logical result of the inevitable clashes between Turkey and the SDF will be a redeployment of SDF forces from the detention facilities to the front lines, leading inevitably to mass prison escapes and an Islamic State resurgence. If the Islamic State makes a comeback, triggering attacks not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and the continental United States, this will all be laid rightly at Trump’s doorstep.
The humanitarian consequences will be no less worrisome. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned in its 2019 annual report that any planned withdrawal from northeastern Syria should be “conducted in such a manner that will not negatively impact the rights and survival of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities,” a message the commission reiterated following Trump’s latest announcement.
Turkey’s Islamist proxies in Afrin, which took control of the area following Turkey’s cross-border operation into northern Syria in 2018, have been implicated in numerous human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities in the city—violations almost certain to be replicated in northeastern Syria.
Erdogan’s plans for demographic engineering in the region are a further recipe for disaster. The Turkish president announced at the United Nations General Assembly that he intends to settle up to 3 million mainly Arab Syrian refugees in northeastern Syria as part of a sinister attempt to turn Kurdish-majority areas into Arab-majority ones. Such a blatant manipulation of the regional ethnic balance is certain to fuel intercommunal tensions and violence in decades to come, further sowing the seeds of hatred and enmity in a region already seething with more than its fair share of prejudices and grievances.
Erdogan’s plans for demographic engineering in the region are a further recipe for disaster.
An important word of caution about the sinister motivations behind Erdogan’s Syria plans could have come from Turkey’s pro-secular opposition bloc, which succeeded in defeating Erdogan in the recent municipal elections in Ankara and Istanbul. But Trump’s threats to destroy and obliterate Turkey’s economy have effectively gagged the opposition.
Erdogan instead benefits from a rally-round-the-flag effect in advance of an anticipated military incursion into Syria and activation of anti-American sentiment that bolsters a government badly scathed by the recent economic downturn, election defeat, and defections of some of the founding figures of the ruling party. Trump’s bewildering rhetoric and policy zigzags have not only hurt the prospects for secular political forces on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border; the president has also offered a lifeline to struggling Islamists there.
Trump’s Syria tactics have hurt the United States as much as its partners. The latest abandoning of U.S. allies has solidified an already widespread belief in the Middle East and beyond that the United States is not a reliable ally. As Russia and Iran offer the Syrian theater as proof that they are reliable partners that will stand by their allies, state and nonstate actors will pivot from Washington toward Moscow and Tehran as part of an attempt to hedge their foreign and security policies.
Trump’s Syria tactics have hurt the United States as much as its partners.
Trump’s willingness to yield in the face of Erdogan’s threats will create a vacuum that Moscow and Tehran will be only too willing to fill, doing lasting damage to the interests of the United States and its European allies. There is no better time to remind Trump that what’s at stake is not just the future of Syria but the fate of the region and Washington’s credibility as an ally.
Eric S. Edelman is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2003 to 2005 and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2005 to 2009.