We continue to search for the direction and focus of the Trump administration’s policy objectives and goals in Syria. Up until the beginning of this month, we thought we understood things — opposition to the Assad regime’s brutality and use of chemical weapons, the defeat of ISIS, al-Qaida and its affiliates and the protection of U.S. allies in the region, including the Kurds and the State of Israel.
But then came the surprise announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from Northern Syria, and with it all support of Kurdish forces. The Kurds are now surrounded by enemies, and are targeted by “terrorist” hunters from Turkey, under the authoritarian leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In response to the Turkish offensive against the Kurds, President Donald Trump threatened economic sanctions. Those threats became moot when Vice President Mike Pence negotiated a ceasefire for which, as a Turkish official put it, “we got everything we wanted.” For saying it would end its offensive against citizens of a foreign country, Turkey was promised an end to sanctions and the expulsion of Kurdish forces from the area.
What did the United States get in return? According to Trump, “It’s a great day for the United States, it’s a great day for Turkey. A great day for the Kurds, it’s a great day for civilization.” Frankly, we’re not at all sure what that means. And the only people we see celebrating the result are the leaders of Turkey.
Beyond that, we fear for the repercussions of Trump’s Middle East moves on the State of Israel. Just after the ceasefire was announced, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Israel and told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States is still focused on the Iran threat. We want to believe that, but the administration’s actions make it difficult to do so. Rather than curbing the Iran threat, the administration’s moves in Syria are giving more oxygen for Iran to expand its influence and increase its existential threat to Israel.
Without the Kurds in northern Syria, the Islamic State can regroup. Hamas militants have long had support from Turkey. Syria has support from Iran. And the U.S. withdrawal is increasing Russia’s prominence and power in the region. The unfolding scenario — and departure from long established U.S. foreign policy objectives — is of such concern that it brought the U.S. House of Representatives together in an overwhelming, bipartisan condemnation of Trump’s actions, and expression of concern. According to a headline in the Wall Street Journal, the message of the House vote was: “Kurds 354, Trump 60,” a stinging slap at a wholly unpopular foreign policy move.
We hoped the bipartisan rebuke would serve as a wake-up call for the administration. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case. We worry about the ramifications of our abandonment of the Kurds, the resulting bolstering of forces of terror and threat to Israel, and the standing of the United States in the world arena. JN