- Another round of contradictory signals from the White House shakes allies’ trust and puts lives at risk.
American diplomats thought they had negotiated a solution to a seemingly intractable problem. The United States needed Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria to face off against remnants of the Islamic State. But Turkey, a NATO ally, saw those same Kurds as terrorists, allied with separatists inside Turkey.
To prevent a Turkish invasion, the three sides — the United States, Turkey and the Kurds — agreed to five-mile-wide safe zones along the border with Turkey, in Syria. Americans would patrol alongside Turkish forces, and the Kurds would dismantle fortifications in those areas that were designed to defend against a possible Turkish incursion. Turkey would also join American-led air operations against Islamic State militants. The deal would put a strain on the 1,000 or so American troops stationed in the region, but it would protect the Kurds in northern Syria and maintain pressure on the Islamic State.
President Trump let all that be destroyed when, succumbing to pressure from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the White House announced that Mr. Trump would not stand in the way of a Turkish invasion to expel Kurdish forces from the border region. The language of the announcement made it seem as if he was even endorsing the move.
Even if the Turks do not invade — and while the president’s tweets on Monday indicated he might be rethinking his green light to the Turks, there were reports that attacks had already begun — the decision may destroy any trust the Kurds, America’s crucial partner in Syria, had left. It could also threaten the fight against ISIS.
Mr. Trump appears once again to have acted impulsively, in this case after a phone call with Mr. Erdogan. He blindsided officials at the Pentagon and the State Department and kept Congress and the allies in the dark. Administration national security officials have argued forcefully for maintaining a small troop presence in northeast Syria to continue pursuing the Islamic State and as a counterweight to Turkey and Syria’s Russian and Iranian allies. Mr. Trump’s determination to withdraw those remaining troops led to the resignations of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, last December.
“The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria,” tweeted Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations. “Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend.”
By midday Monday, the Pentagon was trying to contain the damage by announcing that it and the president had made clear to Turkey “that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria.” The statement added that American military forces “will not support or be involved in any such operation.”
The president himself expressed second thoughts, which were, in their own way, even more jarring.
“As I have stated strongly before,” he tweeted, “and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
Just what, in his unmatched wisdom, Mr. Trump meant by “off limits,” or economic destruction, or the rest of the tweet was not clear. Nor is this the first time the Trump administration has sent conflicting messages about American objectives in Syria.
Last December, Mr. Trump overruled his top advisers to order the withdrawal of all 2,000 American ground troops from Syria within 30 days. The decision was ultimately reversed, but it was the final straw for Mr. Mattis.
Mr. Erdogan has long threatened to send troops into Syria. Since losing an important election in Istanbul in March, he has been under increasing pressure to find ways to shore up his domestic political support. He’d also like to resettle at least one million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey within the safe zone on the Syrian side of the border. Those refugees have become a political liability for him.
But if Kurds in Syria have to defend themselves against the Turks, they are likely to shift their forces from the fight against ISIS, including the guarding of about 10,000 ISIS prisoners now in Kurdish detention centers.
Making it possible for refugees to return home is a worthy goal, but forced resettlement is rarely successful. Moreover, many refugees in Turkey do not come from northern Syria and are unlikely to mix easily with local populations.
Whether Turkey will go forward with a full invasion is unclear. On Mr. Trump’s orders, a couple hundred American troops have been removed from two military outposts. At the same time, the Kurds have stopped dismantling their fortifications and the joint American-Turkish patrols have been ended, officials say. Congress is threatening sanctions on Turkey.
It may seem paradoxical, but in caving in to one of the strongmen he so admires, Mr. Trump may have set the United States on a collision course with Turkey. He’s also put himself into conflict with the Pentagon and his own Republican allies. He may walk his own decision back once again, in part or in whole. But what ally could look at the United States now and see a stalwart partner — and what foe could look at it and fear a determined adversary?