What was President Donald Trump thinking when he abruptly announced that he had agreed to reverse years of US policy in Syria and withdraw American forces, clearing the way for Turkey to launch an attack on what had been loyal US allies, handing a long-sought victory to America’s foes, including Iran and Russia
Indeed, Trump’s decision came as a shock to America’s Kurdish friends in Syria, who reportedly found out about America’s betrayal from a tweet. “You are leaving us to be slaughtered,” a Syrian Kurd leader told a US diplomat.
Americans on the ground knew it. They knew many would die. Some Green Berets there said they felt “ashamed.” US allies worried that if Trump (meaning the United States) can suddenly betray its friends without warning, they could be next.
The decision, made after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, caused an easy-to-foresee chain reaction of disasters so egregious, that even many of Trump’s most loyal Republican backers were appalled. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has bent and broken rules and norms to defend Trump, warned that a sudden withdrawal of US forces, “would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.” Sen. Lindsay Graham called the move, “the biggest blunder of [Trump’s] presidency.” Rep. Liz Cheney called it a “shameful disaster.”
Late on Monday, Trump announced new economic sanctions against Turkey for its “destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.” If nothing else, this is an acknowledgment that the removal of US troops was a grievous mistake. But that in no way excuses it; rather, it highlights how disastrously incoherent, chaotic and contradictory the policy is.
Trump’s Syria decision is so harmful, that it is imperative we find out what was behind it. What exactly did Trump and Erdogan say to each other on that phone call? Why did Trump agree to stand back and allow Erdogan’s forces — the Turkish army and Islamist militias — to make their move?
These are compelling questions that demand an answer. Congress should require that Trump turn over a complete transcript or recording of the call with Erdogan. In fact, we also need to find out what exactly Trump has discussed with Putin on this issue. The transcripts don’t need to be released to the public. Maybe a joint committee of Congress or even a panel of judges can hear the evidence. But the steps and reasoning that led to this catastrophic self-inflicted wound on American security and standing in the world must be scrutinized.
If Trump refuses, we will know he has something to hide.
American presidents enjoy a great deal of latitude, particularly on foreign policy. Trump, like his predecessors, has a right to make the wrong strategic decisions. He has a right to make stupid mistakes. God knows previous US presidents have made them before. But presidents must make these decisions, even foolish ones, based on what they think is in the best interest of the United States.
Trump’s order to clear the way for a Turkish attack on US allies does not meet that most basic test. There is no reason to expect that America will gain absolutely anything from this costly policy reversal. It goes against every geopolitical objective of the Unites States. Trump’s claim that this was a move to “end endless wars,” is baseless. This force was already a low-cost mechanism for ending endless wars, for preventing new ones and for keeping existing ones from getting worse.
Even if he wanted to withdraw, why do it without preparation?
To be sure, President Obama made terrible mistakes in Syria, but this small force, built over the course of half a decade, achieved impressive results. The Syrian Kurds were a force multiplier. They did most of the fighting against ISIS, losing thousands of men and women warriors. (Yes, women are an integral part of the Kurdish forces that Turkey views as a terrorist organization.)
America’s low-cost presence was a success story, helping to bring a measure of stability to northeastern Syria, curtailing Iran’s advance and blocking Tehran’s efforts to build a continuous land bridge to the Mediterranean — aimed partly at threatening Israel — and limiting Russia’s advances
The chances of war between Iran and Israel are now greater. The strength of Russia is enhanced as its ally Assad recaptures more of Syria, and emerges more beholden to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
The stain will not soon wash away. America’s betrayal left the Syrian Kurds — who have been trying to develop a working democracy — with no other choice but to get help from Assad, the Syrian dictator who slaughtered civilians using chemical weapons and starvation tactics.
America has betrayed its friends before, but it was always in the face of a profound moral dilemma. A moral compromise to avoid something worse, or to gain something different. But there was no dilemma here.
Why did Trump do it?
The President already told us, before becoming president, that he had “a little conflict of interest” with Turkey, where he has substantial business concerns, including not one but two Trump towers. But maybe that has nothing to do with it. Maybe it was just arrogance, carelessness, hubris.
Under normal circumstances, we might shake our heads at Trump’s decision; call it a horrible mistake and make the best of it. But these are not normal circumstances, and this is not just any poor tactical move. This foreign policy travesty demands answers.