The extensive consequences of Trump’s Syrian decision
It’s hard to appreciate how much a seemingly small military move can alter the entire picture of the Syrian Civil War and affect global and US national security. So take a step back and consider the factions as they are. Bashar Al-Assad’s government faced a serious of protests and then armed insurrection in 2011. Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, which is historically allied with Shi’ite Islam (though there are important theological differences). As such, Assad has long been allied with Iran and with Lebanese Hezbollah. Assad’s regime has also been backed by Russia (and the Soviet Union before that) for decades.
When the war began there were factions representing Sunni Arabs, Turkomen, Assyrian Christians, Kurds and smaller populations of Druze, Yazidis and others. Into the morass came two Sunni jihadist groups – Al Nusra (Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – each primarily operating in different parts of the country.
Neighboring countries have intervened in various ways. Israel has focused on the Golan Heights and on opposing Iran. Turkey has backed both Turkomen and Sunni Arab rebels fighting in what is called the Free Syrian Army or Syrian National Army. The Kurds are stateless but have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in Iraq and formed a militia in Syria called YPG – later the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – to establish control in northern Syria. Turkey fears any kind of Kurdish autonomy because of its own large Kurdish minority and its decades long battle with the PKK militia.
When the Islamic State (Daesh) spread out of Raqqa, the US ultimately turned to the Kurdish-led SDF to fight and destroy ISIS. This left SDF with over 10,000 ISIS prisoners along with their family members. Most of these prisoners are still extremely dangerous and eagerly await a chance to restart the “Caliphate”.
The current crisis was driven by Turkish accusations that SDF has linked with PKK and is launching terrorist attacks inside Turkey. Somehow, Turkish President Erdogan convinced Donald Trump that he should pull the small contingent of US troops away from the Turkish border so that Turkey could establish a “safe zone” inside Syria, clear of any SDF influence. Turkey says they want to resettle the Syrian refugees in Turkey in that zone.
Once Trump moved US troops away, Turkish troops and, especially, Turkish-allied FSA militias invaded and, predictably, sought out SDF elements and Kurdish politicians, murdering several already. The Kurds, rightly worried about this Turkish invasion, could no longer guard those ISIS prisoners, whom Turkey claimed they would put under their own custody. With no plans laid out for transfer of that authority, there is a real risk that many, if not most, of those ISIS prisoners will break out. Hundreds already have.
As the Kurds sensed their betrayal by Trump, they have now turned to the Assad government for protection. After seven years of rebellion against the Assad regime, the Kurds now hope Syria’s Assad regime will protect them along the border. Needless to say, they will be on a collision course with Turkey and FSA. And they cannot be certain that Assad will respect their autonomy, not to mention their safety.
Who will mediate such a conflict between Assad’s forces now suddenly re-positioned in the North and the Turkish-FSA? No mystery there. It will be Russia, which saved Assad’s regime.
Russia will hope to stave off a large-scale war between the national armies of Turkey and Syria. Russia and Assad will likely turn to another neighboring power to help “keep the peace” – Iran.
The fate of the Kurds is uncertain. The fate of the ISIS prisoners is uncertain.
The fate of US influence in Syria is not uncertain. It is gone now. And while the US has no reason to engage as a major belligerent in the Syrian Civil War (except maybe to protect the Kurds who we shamefully betrayed), we do have two stated aims in the region: to keep ISIS down and limit Iran’s spreading influence. Both of those goals were dealt a heavy blow by this bonkers decision by Trump to pull a small US military contingent away from the Turkish border.
I cannot see any strategic goal gained by Trump’s decision. His immediate placement of 2,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia shows he doesn’t really want to get the US out of the Middle East or “endless wars.” The US presence in northern Syria was pretty light. The deterrence against Turkish invasion was mostly political; a fellow NATO ally was not going to ram right into US troops (at least that was the case before last week). There are all kinds of corrupt possibilities – business deals with Turkey, Trump Tower Istanbul, etc.
But I think the bigger problem is that Trump is a credulous fool who had no idea just how disastrous this move would be. Erdogan has wanted to invade for years. He stroked Trump’s ego. Meanwhile, Trump simply doesn’t listen to top military brass anymore.
He has been enabled by a supine GOP too cowardly to stand up against what its leaders know to be wrong. And by a Secretary of State more interested in protecting Trump’s political career – especially in Ukraine – than in representing US interests abroad. A confluence of ignorance and arrogance led us here. God knows what will lead us out.