A tactical approach to Turkey has failed
The US approach to Turkey under President Donald Trump has been tactical, consisting of a series of mixed signals.
In August 2018, the US imposed sanctions on several Turkish officials to pressure for the release of detained American pastor Andrew Brunson. With the Turkish lira plummeting, Brunson was released in October of that year.
In a separate incident, after squeezing Turkey economically, the US offered to work with Turkey in the investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But later, the White House considered reopening the case of the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, long sought by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a bid to convince Turkey to reduce pressure on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi killing.
In the latest development, Trump agreed to withdraw US troops from Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, opening up the space for a Turkish military incursion. While Trump seeks to deliver on a campaign promise to reduce the US military presence abroad, the clear winner of his latest decision is Turkey, which now gets to pursue its key objective of driving out the Kurdish presence along the Turkish-Syrian border and resettling Syrian refugees there.
The clear losers are the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the very fighters who have been critical to the US counterterrorism efforts against ISIS in Syria. Together the withdrawal of US troops in conjunction with Turkish attacks on Kurdish fighters (and civilians) opens a wide lane for the resurgence of ISIS in Syria, already underway according to an August report by the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General.
Events are moving fast: developments in the first week of the Turkish operation include the apparent escape of ISIS-affiliated detainees and the realignment of Kurdish fighters with the Syrian government.
There are other losers, however. These include counterterrorism initiatives globally where the US has shifted from active leadership to more advisory roles. For instance, following a December 2018 policy statement by then-national security advisor John Bolton, the US has scaled back support for counterterrorism initiatives in Africa, including against Boko Haram in West Africa and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Sahel.
Additionally, the abandonment of a strategic (non-state) ally at the request of another (NATO) ally when it is expedient to do so will be registered not only by the Kurdish fighters in Syria but also potential partners worldwide, including Juan Guaido in Venezuela and the Cuban-American diaspora. And it is still not entirely clear what the US or President Trump (perhaps increasingly separately) get out of this latest policy signal with Turkey.
Congress and US allies continue to struggle to restrain Trump
After Donald Trump announced he was pulling troops from Kurdish-held areas in Syria, there was outrage from both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, two of Trump’s strongest supporters, both admonished the president for his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Evangelical leaders previously silent on some of Trump’s most controversial policies also dissented. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, condemned Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds. This sentiment was expressed by other leading figures in the conservative Christian community who believe the US has a responsibility to protect persecuted Christian communities overseas.
The threat that evangelical voters, who made up 26% of voters in the 2016 presidential election and voted overwhelmingly for Trump (81%), might break with the president over his Syria policy, or that Republican Senators would push back, may explain Trump’s decision to support sanctions against Turkey. It may also signal that Trump is willing to bend if failing to do so threatens the support of his Republican base.
European governments have also condemned Trump’s phone call with Erdogan and his decision to pull US troops from Syria, and for good reason. Turkey has seized on criticism of its military manoeuvres to renew its threat to use Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip with the EU. Europe is justified in its concern that the release of ISIS detainees and renewed terrorist activities presents a security risk for Europe. And US pressure to repatriate ISIS fighters with European citizenship is likely to grow.
This week, they took action, as the foreign ministers of all 28 EU member states agreed to stop selling arms to Turkey.
For Europe, a pushback against Trump over Syria is important not just for its immediate effects, but for what it says about European attempts to create a foreign policy independent of the US president. Some in government are now recognizing that America’s international role may be changing for good. As this struggle plays out on policy towards Iran, and also China, Trump’s Syria policy gives European countries one more reason to distance themselves.
Congressional attempts to challenge Trump’s abrupt decision, given the rapidly changing facts on the ground, also look like they will be too little, and too late, at least in Syria.
Even with Trump’s support, measures designed to punish Turkey’s leaders by targeting their assets, inhibiting foreign travel and preventing military sales will have little effect on who controls northeast Syria if Assad succeeds in using the Kurdish deal to re-establish a foothold across northeast Syria. And if this does deliver stability to the region, it will have come at a high price.
It remains to be seen if any of this will translate into a victory for Trump. For a US president who stakes his reputation on doing deals, the announcement that the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have agreed their own deal will come as a big blow.
And if it succeeds, this deal will be a dramatic setback for US strategic and humanitarian priorities in Syria: to secure the territorial defeat of ISIS and prevent its resurgence, contain Iranian and Russian influence, and provide a secure space with humanitarian relief for the diverse community of Christians, Kurds and others in the region who have looked to America for support.
The US president seems happy to absorb these costs if it means he can deliver on his campaign promise to bring US troops home. But much will depend on whether a humanitarian crisis in Syria and the threat of a resurgent ISIS erodes the unqualified support from his Republican base that this president heretofore seems to have enjoyed.