Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria has developed rapidly since President Trump surprise-announced last Sunday that he would withdraw U.S. forces from the region. As casualties mount, around 750 ISIS detainees escaped Kurdish custody following a Turkish air strike. Turkey appears to be expanding well beyond Ankara’s intention for a “safe zone” along its border, leading to mass displacement: UNICEF reports that this week nearly 70,000 children have been uprooted because of the conflict. Turkish-backed militants have killed Kurdish politicians, and civilian deaths have risen to at least 39. To stave off a massacre, the Kurdish SDF alliance signed a protection deal with the Assad regime, and Syrian forces have moved into their former territory.
Just as swift as the new developments in the eight-year Syrian civil war — though profoundly less impactful — were Republican condemnations of the president’s decision. As party leaders defended the president for his scandal in Ukraine, reliable allies like Lindsey Graham and Liz Cheney called Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds a “disaster in the making” and “a catastrophic mistake.” To help appease his critics, Trump responded on Monday with the announcement of pending sanctions against Turkey for the invasion of Syria.
“I will soon be issuing an Executive Order authorizing the imposition of sanctions against the current and former officials of the Government of Turkey,” the press release stated, announcing that steel tariffs would return to 50 percent and that the Department of Commerce would “immediately” end the negotiation of a “$100 billion trade deal.”
Also liable to be sanctioned: “Any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.” Unfortunately for the president, this applies directly to himself: There is an undeviating line between his impromptu decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area and the Turkish invasion.
There’s a second claim in the press release that serves as an immediate contradiction to Trump’s role in the crisis — that Trump has been “perfectly clear with President Erdogan: Turkey’s action is perpetuating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes.” Trump reportedly came into the October 6 conversation with Erdogan underprepared; according to an administration source who spoke to Fox News, his talking points amounted to “Tell Erdogan to stay north of the border.” Unsurprisingly, “he went off script.” That night, the president announced the troop withdrawal, conveniently aligning American policy with Erdogan’s plan for the region for at least two years.
At this point in the administration, such blatant contradictions are nothing new: Trump countering himself has become a Twitter genre in its own right. But rarely do his contradictions come with such a devastating human cost.