By Alan W. Dowd
As we continue to sift through the shrapnel of President Trump’s decision to pull back from Syria and greenlight Turkey’s long-planned operations against Syria’s Kurds and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, we need to keep in mind that what transpired in October represents only the short-term consequences. As with President Obama’s unenforced “red line” warning to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the long-term consequences of President Trump’s green light to Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan are still taking shape, like a storm gathering in the distance.
Before getting into those likely long-term consequences, it’s worth spending a moment on the consequences that are already known.
Erdogan has added to the humanitarian catastrophe that Syria has become during eight years of civil war, terror attacks, counterterror operations, chemical warfare and ethnic cleansing.
Thanks to Erdogan, 300,000 civilians have been displaced. Human rights observers report that Kurdish politicians and uniformed Kurdish soldiers have been executed; Kurdish civilians and journalists have been killed by Turkish airstrikes; and medical centers have been targeted. Amnesty International accuses Turkey and its partners of “launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians.” In addition, Amnesty reports that Erdogan is forcibly moving Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey to the so-called “safe zone” in northern Syria, even though that “safe zone” is more akin to a warzone.
U.S. military drones have captured video evidence of Turkish-backed fighters purposely attacking civilians. Jim Jeffrey, U.S. special representative for Syria, adds, “We’ve seen several incidents which we consider war crimes.”
Greenlighting Turkey’s assault on Syria’s Kurds also has stained American honor. The SDF fought alongside American special-operations units for more than five years. During that time, American troops trained 60,000 SDF personnel. Unlike so many of our allies, who always seem willing to fight to the last American, the SDF fought tenaciously against our common enemy and sacrificed 11,000 men in the brutal, block-by-block, village-by-village campaign to liberate northeastern Syria from ISIS.
It’s no wonder that Green Berets say they feel “ashamed” by this betrayal of the Kurds. One Army officer told the New York Times, “They trusted us, and we broke that trust.”
Yet another consequence of leaving the SDF and Syria’s Kurds to the tender mercies of Erdogan’s army: It rewards Ankara’s growing record of bad behavior, which will lead to worse behavior. Recall that Erdogan has smashed Turkey’s democracy; steered his country toward authoritarianism; cozied up to fellow strongman Vladimir Putin; purchased Russian weapons over NATO and U.S. objections; blocked NATO allies from visiting NATO forces deployed in Turkey; and prevented U.S. and NATO assets from flying out of Incirlik. And yet, President Trump’s response to this record of recalcitrance is to reward Erdogan with a sliver of Syria—and a visit to the White House.
As unintended consequences go, that’s a rather awful list. But it’s going to get worse—no matter how many times the president reassures us that “We’re 7,000 miles away.”
That brings us to the long-term consequences.
First, America’s diminished footprint in Syria will lead to diminished antiterror efforts. But don’t take my word for it.
“We obviously had troops there, the mission was defeating ISIS, so if you remove those troops before that mission is complete, you have a problem—and we do have a problem right now,” Jeffrey says.
Foreign Affairs reports a “flurry of prison breaks” in northern Syria, where thousands of ISIS fighters were being held by our (former) SDF partners.
Adds Gen. John Kelly: “What was working in Syria was that for very little investment, the Kurds were doing all the fighting, the vast majority of the dying, and we were providing intelligence and fire support assistance. And we were winning.”
Indeed, U.S. commandoes in Syria and their SDF partners were conducting a dozen counterterror missions per day. Those missions—essential to keeping the enemy focused on survival rather than focused on planning attacks in the West or building a caliphate in the Middle East—have slowed in tempo and been made more difficult due to the tyranny of distance.
Thus, the Pentagon is coming to grips with “the rebirth of an Islamic State sanctuary,” Politico reports. In fact, a Pentagon report released this month concludes that ISIS will “likely…use the security vacuum in northeastern Syria to target the West because it will likely have more time and space to plan attacks and provide support to its 19 global branches and networks,” and that “absent counterterrorism pressure in Syria, ISIS would probably have an opportunity to regain control of some Syrian population centers and to be better postured to launch external attacks and expand its global footprint.”
Doubtless, President Trump’s counterpoint to this is that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by U.S. forces operating inside Syria. This is a welcome tactical victory in the war on jihadist terror. But as with al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s takedown, ISIS will continue to sow death and destruction after Baghdadi. That’s because we are fighting an ideology—not an individual.
The irony of the Baghdadi strike is that elements of the operation launched from inside Syria—and that SDF effortswere key in providing intelligence leading to Baghdadi’s hideout. No matter. One gets the sense President Trump views the elimination of Baghdadi in the same way President Obama viewed the elimination of bin Laden—as a validation of his approach and a springboard into accelerated pullback.
That’s the second long-term consequence of October 2019. President Trump’s green light in Turkey and President Obama’s red line in Syria serve as metaphors for America’s retreat from the leading role it played on the world stage between 1941 and 2009.
President Obama drew his red line in late 2012. When Assad crossed it by using chemical weapons in 2013, it was imperative for the president to enforce that red line, not only to buttress the taboo against WMDs and thus deter further use of WMDs, but to make it clear that America’s word matters—and America’s threats are not empty. Instead of enforcing his red line, President Obama blinked. The cascading consequences included continued use of WMDs, a heightened sense of insecurity among regional allies, and the return of Russia to a region from which it had been exiled since the end of the Cold War. Putin smilingly promised to cajole Assad into handing over his WMDs. But as chemical weapons continued to be used and President Obama continued to leave his red line unenforced, Putin reckoned it was safe to intervene militarily to prop up Assad’s tottering regime. Assad was rescued, and Moscow was again a player in the Middle East.
Importantly, President Obama issued his “red line” threat just eight months after he withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq—disregarding the recommendations of Gen. Lloyd Austin (commander of U.S. forces in Iraq); Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen; Gen. Martin Dempsey (Mullen’s successor); and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who lamentedthat the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
In Iraq, as in Syria, the worst of the worst consequences didn’t manifest themselves immediately. But soon enough, al Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and rebranded itself as ISIS; Yazidis, Shiites and Christians were massacred; Baghdad was nearly overrun; and ISIS declared a jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East. And so, President Obama rushed U.S. forces back into Iraq. That wouldn’t have been necessary if he had simply heeded the counsel of his advisors and maintained a modest-sized stabilization force in Iraq. But President Obama didn’t listen to such counsel regarding Iraq, and President Trump isn’t listening regarding Syria.
“You can pull your troops out, as President Obama learned the hard way, out of Iraq, but the enemy gets a vote,” Gen. James Mattis warns. “If we don’t keep the pressure on them, ISIS will resurge.”
ISIS isn’t the only concern in Syria. Since geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, others inevitably fill the space left open by America’s withdrawal, which brings us to a third long-term consequence of President Trump’s Syria pullout.
Expanding the foothold he gained after President Obama’s erased red line for Assad, Putin immediately rushed in after President Trump’s green light for Erdogan, hammered out a deal to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria, and offered succor to the friendless Kurds. “Abandoned by U.S. forces and staring down the barrel of a Turkish invasion, Kurdish fighters had no option but to turn to Assad’s government and to Russia for protection from their No. 1 enemy,” AP reports.
As Kelly explains, Washington’s decisions have “opened the way for the Russians to be very, very influential in the Middle East.” Thanks to its expanding perch in Syria—in November, Russian troops took control of an abandoned U.S. airbase in northern Syria—Moscow is limiting the U.S. military’s freedom of maneuver in the region (especially in and above the eastern Mediterranean), bolstering Iran and Syria, and complicating Western diplomatic efforts in an already-complicated region.
The dichotomy is not lost on regional leaders: While Washington draws red lines that go unenforced and greenlights operations that send its partners reeling, Moscow steadily backs and bolsters its friends.
Nor is the fallout limited to the Middle East. Given that President Trump has defended his green light by noting the Kurds “didn’t help us with Normandy” and pointing out Syria is “7,000 miles away,” what message does this send to the South Koreans (5,820 miles away, didn’t help us at Normandy), Lithuanians (4,450 miles away, didn’t help us at Normandy) and Taiwanese (6,698 miles away, didn’t help us at Normandy)?
Nor is the fallout quarantined overseas. Military officials are bracing for what President Trump’s next tweet might set in motion. “The Pentagon recently began drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case President Donald Trump surprises military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria,” NBC reports.
Add it all up, and there is less order and more chaos as a direct result of Washington’s policies.
A 2017 Washington Post analysis concluded, “Every indication from what we know of Trump the businessman and reality TV star suggests that he revels in the chaos, that he believes the chaos produces just the sort of results he likes.” This may be true in the boardroom and on TV, but it does not hold when it comes to foreign policy, as we have seen in Syria (and as I predicted upon his inauguration).
Chaos does not serve U.S. interests. Responsible powers like the United States are expected to be, well, responsible, which means the U.S. should promote stability and order. The United States in recent years has not lived up to that standard, and the consequences are everywhere on display.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.