For the last 2½ years of haphazard foreign policy under President Trump, the refrain of reassurance was that at least the unconventional leader had not been faced with a major international crisis.
Now, Trump faces one of his own making — something he started and might not be able to stop.
Until now, the consequences of Trump’s foreign policy decisions usually unfolded in slow motion, such as the withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and the subjugation of Palestinians in the Mideast peace process.
By contrast, his rash decision to withdraw the last U.S. troops in northeastern Syria has been the most immediately consequential — and lethal — of his presidency.
It quickly led to the slaughter of Syrian Kurds — U.S. allies who helped defeat Islamic State militants — and a brutal Turkish invasion across Syria’s border that put retreating U.S. troops at risk and still threatens to spiral into a broader conflict, despite Trump’s frantic attempts now to contain it.
It has been a gift for Russia, which stepped into the vacuum left by the United States, and to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a U.S. foe who immediately agreed to a Russian-brokered deal with the Kurds to help them confront Turkish incursions.
The escape of Islamic State militants in the ensuing chaos is raising fears that the terrorist group that Trump often boasts of defeating could come roaring back to life.
And U.S. allies in the region such as Israel, which reportedly received no warning of Trump’s plans, now must quickly adjust to the shifting dynamics within its longtime enemy Syria while wondering: If Trump can so easily betray the Kurds, might he do the same to Israel?
Critics say Trump ignored all the warnings — as well as counsel from advisors — about how vulnerable the Syrian Kurds were and of the inevitably dire fallout.
The debacle with Syria encapsulates many of the characteristics that have propelled Trump as a politician but are potentially hazardous for a world leader: impetuousness; a contempt for expertise, especially that of the State Department’s career foreign-service officers; a focus on narrow, short-term, transactional interests; an absolute trust in his own instincts; and a penchant to flip-flop and finger-point.
“This has been building for 2½ years, and eventually the chickens come home to roost,” said William Burns, former deputy secretary of State and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an interview.
“The only surprise is that it took this long to have such a serious crisis,” he added.
Trump, in pursuing what he calls an “America first” policy in the world, has prided himself on shaking up the status quo. Now he is witnessing what can go so wrong in such a practice.
“This has been really illustrative, in the most graphic way we have seen, of the dangers of a president going with his gut,” said Hal Brands, a former Pentagon analyst now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Trump “junked the balancing act” that had sustained U.S. operations in Syria, while angering both Turkey and its enemy, the Syrian Kurds, Brands said. “It’s the worst of both worlds, a scenario one would imagine is not easy to achieve.”
Trump last week announced he was withdrawing the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops from small bases in northeastern Syria, where for the last several years they trained, equipped and fought alongside Syrian Kurdish militias to take back territory from Islamic State and stave off forces of Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.
His decision, Trump said, came after a single phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, who has long sought to wipe out Syrian Kurds he considers terrorists. Erdogan appeared to take Trump’s mild admonitions to tread carefully as a green light to invade northern Syria — where he would align with Russia.
Within 72 hours, a reported 200 Kurds had been killed, terrified refugees were fleeing once again to avoid Turkish bombardment, and Islamic State detainees were reportedly escaping by the hundreds. Trump’s action has triggered a cascade of presumably unintended consequences that will roil the Middle East and beyond for years.
Even fellow Republicans were taken aback. “Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of” Islamic State, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell warned that the withdrawal, and the betrayal of the Kurds, would create “a broader power vacuum in Syria that will be exploited by Iran and Russia, a catastrophic outcome for the United States’ strategic interests.”
Indeed, the U.S. exit was celebrated by Moscow and Tehran — along with Assad, who Washington once vowed must be deposed but now, thanks to Russia and Iran, has all but won an 8-year-long Syrian civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
In addition to backing Assad, Russia struck a bargain with Erdogan, and now believes its goal has been achieved: driving the United States out of Syria and securing its expansive footprint in the region, regaining status as a major player in the Middle East. Russia rushed in to fill the void left by the U.S., moving in some cases into abandoned U.S. facilities, according to reports from the region. Iran, too, was eager to see the Americans out of Syria.
Trump is the unsuspecting tourist in a Middle Eastern bazaar. Trump may think he struck a great deal. But he’s now the joke of the souk
Trump fell for whatever empty promises Erdogan might have made to him, and Erdogan in turn was a pawn of Moscow, said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“Erdogan delivered enormous dividends for his investors” Russia and Iran, Erdemir said in an interview. “And Trump is the unsuspecting tourist in a Middle Eastern bazaar. Trump may think he struck a great deal. But he’s now the joke of the souk.”
No single act by Trump has so starkly illustrated his rejection of diplomatic norms and deliberative policy, and his embrace of erratic execution, as has the Syria withdrawal, current and former officials say. The Kurds who were U.S. allies have been forced to turn to their enemy, Assad, and Russia for protection from Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
And the abandonment of the Kurds has caused allies to doubt U.S. trustworthiness.
“It causes doubt about our reliability and drift, while adversaries and rivals see an opportunity,” said Burns, a 33-year veteran of American diplomacy. Potentially dangerous countries such as Iran and North Korea “may be tempted to call Trump’s bluff” and take ever-more-bellicose actions, he warned.
Another big loser is Israel.
Until now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has enjoyed extraordinarily close and unquestioningly loyal relations with Trump. The U.S. president seemed willing to grant Netanyahu’s every wish: He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to the contested holy city, then put icing on the cake by also recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War. Both steps contravened international law and decades of U.S. policy.
More recently, Trump seems to have cooled on Netanyahu, who has suffered crippling blows in two national elections — twice failing to win the parliamentary majority that would allow him to form a government.
As far as is known, Trump did not give Netanyahu advance warning of his decision to pull out of northern Syria. Israelis, who have long viewed their northern neighbor as a threat because of Syria’s volatility and the heavy presence of Iranian proxies, reacted in horror.
“Israel came face to face with the cold, hard reality of the damage caused by Trump’s isolationist instincts, and chaotic, impulsive decision-making,” Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote on Twitter.
Stung by the domestic backlash over Trump’s actions, especially among Republicans, the administration is now trying to find a way to resolve the crisis by calling for a cease-fire and slapping economic sanctions on Ankara. Trump’s advisors also have sought to blame the chaos on others.
“This was not caused by any action of President Trump,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday evening. The official demanded anonymity to discuss policy. “Nothing we did was going to deter the Turks from what they wanted to do. President Erdogan was going to act regardless.”
Few elsewhere seemed satisfied with that explanation. Said Brands of Johns Hopkins: “We are witnessing in real time the collapse of American influence in key parts of the Middle East.”