With the state of play in Syria rapidly shifting, President Donald Trump seems to have arrived at the worst of all worlds. Trump’s name is already mud among the Syrian Kurdish fighters his administration abandoned when it essentially gave Turkey the green light for an invasion last week. These incursions into northeastern Syria, warned Trump’s own Defense Department on Monday, “undermined” the fight against the Islamic State and threatened to engulf clusters of U.S. troops that still remain. And whatever favor Trump intended to curry with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely soured after he subsequently backed bipartisan congressional sanctions against Turkey for carrying out an anti-Kurdish offensive that was only possible with the American president’s acquiescence.
“Faced with a crisis of its own making, a flailing superpower has turned to economic sanctions to pretend it is still relevant,” the Economist dryly observed. Amid the turmoil, Trump’s argument may be that he does not want to be relevant, at least in the hot spot that is war-ravaged Syria. He routinely blames the Obama administration, from which he inherited America’s checkered legacy of involvement in the Syrian war, including its firm alliance with the main faction of Syrian Kurds. Better, Trump tweeted, to not have to deal with it at all. And to that end, he could be getting his wish.
As part of a deal with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Democratic Forces — or SDF, the Syrian Kurdish-led faction backed by the United States but seen by Turkey as the analogue of an outlawed Kurdish separatist group within its own borders — invited in regime forces to help thwart Turkey and its militant proxies.
“For the first time in years, Syrian government forces arrived in the towns of Tabqa, on the outskirts of Raqqa, and Ain Issa, which served as the headquarters of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria, about 20 miles from the Turkish border,” my colleagues reported. “Images published by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, showed government troops arriving atop pickup trucks and waving Syrian flags.”
Both the Syrian Kurds and Turkey accused the other of releasing Islamic State detainees from detention camps as battles raged. Europeans fretted on the sidelines, bemoaning Trump’s decision to pull out. “We don’t have magic powers” to stop the Turkish assault, said Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who is slated to become the European Union’s foreign policy chief later this year. “If the American troops wouldn’t have withdrawn, this attack would have been impossible. The American troop withdrawal was a condition in order to make the attack possible.”
By Monday evening, attention fell on a possible clash between Syrian regime forces and Turkish-affiliated fighters as they both converged on the town of Manbij, where a detachment of U.S. troops was preparing to hastily depart. The whirlwind of events marked the sudden reconfiguring of the Syrian battlefield, with the Americans exiting the fray, the Turks hoping to assert their authority over the Syrian borderlands, the Kurds submitting to Damascus, and the regime further consolidating its control of a war-ravaged nation. The scenes in Riyadh on Monday of Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting Saudi Arabia’s King Salman only seemed to add to the growing impression of a geopolitical rug getting pulled from under American feet.
In the fog of war, at least one thing is becoming all too clear: The half-decade-old experiment of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish enclave — backed by American arms and air power — has come to a shuddering halt. Foreign journalists reporting in territory once controlled by the SDF fled to Iraq in order not to fall afoul of the Assad regime, which has blacklisted reporters entering the country in rebel-held areas. Syrian Kurdish officials have already accepted the necessity of siding with Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran.
“We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them,” wrote Mazloum Abdi, commander of the SDF, in an op-ed for Foreign Policy. “But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
Abdi emphasized that he didn’t expect the United States to be the “world police,” but had hoped Trump would use Washington’s “leverage to mediate a sustainable peace between us and Turkey.”
It doesn’t seem that will happen. Trump said in a statement on Monday that he was “fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.” But critics suggested the proposed punitive measures — including a steel tariff and targeted sanctions on Turkish individuals — were relatively light and symbolic. Moreover, Trump has also started to parrot Ankara’s arguments about the SDF, dwelling on their connections to a U.S.-listed terrorist group and ignoring the tremendous sacrifice they made on behalf of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.
“Trump has played down the Kurdish relationship as purely transactional. They had been given a lot of money and equipment, he pointed out,” observed the Guardian’s Julian Borger. “But it was not transactional for the soldiers who fought at each others’s shoulders, and the civilians killed as a result of the Trump-Erdogan understanding. The U.S. has let the Kurds down before, but Trump’s sheer callousness has made it hard to imagine that this betrayal will be forgiven in the foreseeable future.”
That seeming callousness is a signature theme of Trump’s foreign policy. “I’ve always looked at the approach the administration takes as very transactional and very short-term in nature,” former Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told my colleagues over the weekend. “It’s almost seeking headlines for the very next day, but not really thinking through the longer-term impact on our country.”
But the developments of the past couple of months point to a longer-term failure. The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Jackson Diehl, argued that an unraveling of Trump’s agenda began in early September, starting with his abrupt scrapping of a summit with the Afghan Taliban. It continued with Iran’s refusal to be cowed by Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and engage in talks with the U.S. president. Then, in separate meetings with North Korean and Chinese interlocutors over denuclearization and trade, respectively, the White House could, at best, only hail cosmetic signs of progress.
“The uproar in Washington over President Trump’s corruption in Ukraine and malfeasance in Syria has obscured a broader story,” wrote Diehl. “In little more than a month, virtually every other foreign policy initiative the Trump administration has pursued has imploded — thanks mostly to the president’s increasingly unhinged behavior.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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