Turkey's president pulled one over on Trump - and some of the US's most dangerous adversaries are the big winners

Trump Erdogan

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Donald Trump attends a bilateral meeting with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.

  • President Donald Trump's eagerness to withdraw US troops from the Middle East, coupled with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's yearning to subdue an alleged Kurdish threat at his border, seemed like two stars aligning over a delicate Middle East.
  • For Trump, the Turkish military campaign in Syria appeared to be an easy way out.
  • As the hours turn to days, Trump's desire to fulfill one of his campaign promises of stopping "endless wars" seems to have spectacularly backfired at the cost of political capital at home, and trust among allies abroad.
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President Donald Trump's eagerness to withdraw US troops from the Middle East, coupled with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's yearning to subdue an alleged Kurdish threat at his border, seemed like two stars aligning over a war-ravaged Middle East.

For Trump, the Turkish military campaign in Syria appeared to be an easy way out.Advertisement

But as the hours turn to days, Trump's desire to fulfill one of his campaign promises of stopping "endless wars" seems to have spectacularly backfired at the cost of political capital at home, and trust among allies abroad.

The drawbacks of the withdrawal do not end there - four of the US's most dangerous adversaries, the Islamic State, Russia, Iran, and Syria, are all poised to strengthen their foothold amid the chaos and bloodshed.

Trump talks to Putin by phone

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump.


The green light

The sequence of events followed a phone call between the two leaders on October 6, in which Erdogan made clear his intent to deal with Kurdish forces - once backed by US-allies for their stalwart military campaign against ISIS - in northeast Syria.

Turkey has long viewed members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist threat and has hunted them in other countries, including Iraq. After thousands of people were killed in the decades-long conflict between Turkey and the PKK, Erdogan vowed to stem the Kurdish influence near his border.Details of the phone call are not public, however, the White House claimed Trump did not approve of Erdogan's military campaign to confront Kurdish forces in Syria. According to an Axios report, sources close to the White House say Erdogan finally called Trump's bluff and embarked on his incursion into Syria.Advertisement

Read more: The general who led the fight against ISIS says Trump's new policy 'breaks that trust' after years of hard fighting

Erdogan, who faces increasing domestic pressure amid a flailing economy, received the symbolic green light to do just that as Trump withdrew roughly two dozen US special operations forces from the immediate area of the invasion. Trump eventually followed up by withdrawing an additional 1,000 troops from the country, leaving just a small, undisclosed number of them stationed near Syria's border with Iraq.

Numerous reports of atrocities followed newsbreaks from Turkey's assault. At least a dozen Kurds, including a female politician, were reportedly killed.Advertisement

The perpetrators are not limited to Turkish forces. In addition to pressure from Turkey, the Kurds are under assault by the Free Syrian Army, a Turkish-backed militia who are reportedly killing civilians and freeing ISIS prisoners who were detained by the Kurds.


Associated Press

Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq, March 30, 2014.

Lasting consequences

Numerous unverified pictures and video footage of the bloodshed have emerged in the wake of the Turkish military campaign. But a nascent threat from the US's adversaries has been fueled in the chaos. Advertisement

The military conflict in Syria is inching towards the undoing of years of progress against ISIS. Terrorist militants and their family members who were imprisoned by their Kurdish captors in makeshift detention centers have reportedly been escaping, or freed, after the Kurds shifted their resources to address the Turkish threat. Roughly 10,000 suspected ISIS members were detained in 20 of these prisons, according to The Washington Post.

Read more: The US defense secretary gives US's strongest condemnation yet of Turkey's 'unacceptable incursion' in Syria

The US Defense Department said it was monitoring the situation but had limited tools to assess exact figures of escaped detainees.Advertisement

"Look, we don't have a large footprint in Syria, so we can't be everywhere and know everything," one senior administration official said on Monday. "We are very concerned about the ... potential for detainee releases from the prisons."

Vladimir Putin

Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, a close ally of the Syrian regime during eight years of civil war, looks to gain the most influence amid the Kurdish plight. Despite having been a de facto mediator in fraught Syrian and Turkish relations, the Turkish assault provides Russia an opportunity to increase its clout with Turkey and cement its ties in Syria. It has used the conflict to test its military systems like the Su-57 stealth fighter.Advertisement

Russia's alliance with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is set to continue as Syrian troops march towards towns occupied by Kurdish forces. Russia's state-sponsored forces were widely believed to have supported Syrian troops during the country's civil war, even going so far as to bomb hospitals in rebel-held territories.

Russian troops or mercenaries are also believed to be embedded in a Syrian convoy headed towards Manbij, a major city once held by ISIS, according to The Washington Post.

Read more: 'This is just chaos': Retired Marine general condemns Trump's decision to stand down as Turkey launches military attacks in SyriaAdvertisement

Russia has been publicly sympathetic towards Turkey's campaign against the Kurds. Russian officials have previously aligned themselves with Turkey's concerns over the alleged Kurdish threat, and Turkish President Erdogan on Monday described Russian President Vladimir's stance as a "positive approach."

Syrian Kurdish representatives have said that cease-fire discussions between them, Turkey, and Russia were taking place.

"We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Assad," an SDF commander reportedly said. "But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people."Advertisement

The US withdrawal could also give Iran an opening to spread its influence by supporting the Kurds, a possibility examined by The Washington Post.

Syrian war conflict Russia Putin Bashar al-Assad US

Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Reuters

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Syria may have another humanitarian crisis on its hands. On Sunday, the UN estimated that more than 130,000 people were displaced as a result of the recent conflict. The organization also estimated that up to 400,000 people in the region may require aid and protection in the near future.Advertisement

But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has historically downplayed the humanitarian crisis in his country and instead remains focused on matters that secure his position of power: "Assad is a principal obstacle to rehabilitation of Syria, and eventually the Alawite business class and those who support the regime externally will find that he's a liability and an albatross that will grow," a Western diplomat said in The Atlantic earlier this year.

Assad's remaining in power is another loss for the US, which sought his regime's ouster until Trump changed the policy in 2017.Read more: 'The President eats his own': Military veterans in Congress unload on Trump for abandoning a US ally in the ISIS fightAdvertisement

Following the Turkish assault, Kurdish groups struck an agreement with the Syrian regime. As part of the deal, the Kurds seceded territory it once fought for against ISIS to Syria. Assad's forces are poised to retake the northern territories once held by the Kurds - securing al-Assad's grip of the country and denying a Kurdish de facto state.

Following Trump's decision to withdraw US troops in his country, Assad cast shade at his American counterpart.

"We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,"Assad said on Sunday. "The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with [it]."Advertisement

Donald Trump campaign rally

Evan Vucci/AP

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Crown Arena, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Fayetteville, N.C.

'It's shameful to leave partners to their fate.'

In an attempt to deny liability for the crisis, the Trump administration deflected the blame and claimed US forces were forced to retreat after Turkey's president made clear his intent to invade Syria.

"The idea that somehow those couple dozen forces would somehow be in a position to stop an invading army is just not logical, and it would be extremely dangerous to request those forces to achieve that mission," a senior administration official said on Monday.Advertisement

"So, rather than them being encircled and potentially being in the crossfire of an ongoing conflict, we had to focus on the force protection of those special operators."

Read more: Iranian official mocks John Bolton after he's ousted from Trump's White House

The president's decision is an obvious one for advocates of the move: Trump fulfills his campaign promise of withdrawing US troops and ending the US's military involvement - and the forced withdrawal is attributed to Turkey's supposed unstoppable advance on Syria.Advertisement

"We have no soldiers in the area, you know," Trump said at the White House on Wednesday. "We're getting out of the endless wars. We have to do it. And eventually somebody was going to have to make the decision."

US Marines howitzers Syria

US Marine Corps

US Marines fire a howitzer in Syria.

But while the president and his close allies consider the move as a decisive one, the decision to stand down amid Turkey's assault has brought criticism from both political parties - even Trump's most ardent supporters. A bipartisan group of lawmakers condemned Trump's decision to withdraw US troops and claimed the US is leaving its Kurdish allies, one of the most effective answers to ISIS's proliferation, out for slaughter by Turkey.Advertisement

An estimated 11,000 Kurds have died in the war against ISIS, a figure that is not forgotten among congressional leaders and Trump's former military officials.

"So sad. So dangerous," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted on October 7. "President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam. They are NOT tired of fighting us."

Former US Central Command commander and retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel expressed disappointment to stand down amid Turkey's actions. Votel, who oversaw the US's fight against ISIS before his retirement earlier this year, described the decision as an "abrupt policy" that appeared to "abandon our Kurdish partners."Advertisement

"It didn't have to be this way," Votel said in an opinion column. "The US worked endlessly to placate our Turkish allies."

Former officials have also characterized the withdrawal as an abandonment of US allies - a potential precedent that fuels concerns for those who would partner with the US. Trump habitually rails against allied countries and organizations, and accuses them of not reimbursing the US for security costs and contributing funds for mutual assurances.

"It's shameful to leave partners to their fate and the mercies of hostile actors with no thought, plan or process in place," Brett McGurk, a former US envoy against ISIS said on Twitter. "I wish my former SDF colleagues the best as they find new patrons. We won a war together. That's something nobody can take away from us."