Ben: President Trump said today that he expected Turkey’s cease-fire against the Kurds in Northern Syria to be permanent (though he helpfully added that any permanent cessation of hostilities in the Middle East is “questionable”). The situation still seems very fluid — hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been displaced, some number of ISIS detainees have escaped — who knows how many — and Bashar al-Assad, with the help of his pal Vladimir Putin, has increasingly asserted control over the region. With all these new factors in play, do you think the relative peace will hold?
Heather: In his remarks, Trump seemed to be claiming credit for a deal that was in fact worked out between Putin and Turkish president Erdogan yesterday, in a summit to which the U.S. was not invited. Turkey gets to continue controlling all the territory it moved into across the Turkish-Syrian border. This is a humanitarian catastrophe for Kurdish civilians. Ankara has threatened or planned to move all the civilians to a desert area far from the border where a new city would be constructed. But currently there is nothing, and no international assistance or oversight of how vulnerable people are treated. And the swath of northeastern Syria that Turkey hadn’t moved into yet? Assad gets that. It’s a very odd outcome for Washington to claim as progress from a strategic or humanitarian perspective. And Putin gets to be the power broker. Not Trump, despite his “we take the credit” performance this morning.
Ben: Am I right in thinking that the Kurds still technically control most of the territory they had wrested from ISIS? Just not the “buffer zone” Turkey has carved out?
Heather: They are not likely to be able to sustain control of the rest. It partly depends on what Assad does next.
Ben: A big lingering question about this massive unforced error is why Trump committed it in the first place. There are a lot of theories as to why he all but gave Erdogan a green light to invade Syria in the face of near-unanimous opposition from both parties: He’s ultra-committed to this idea of pulling troops (even though he just ordered more to Saudi Arabia); he just has a tendency to take orders from autocrats; Erdogan has personal leverage over him, etc. Where do you fall on this?
Heather: I struggle as a professional who was trained in analysis and some effort at impartiality to figure out how to talk about the theories involving Erdogan having personal leverage or Trump’s business interests playing a role. Everything about my profession says I should dismiss them. Everything about the news says, not so fast.
It also seems consistent over time that Trump does not like the Syria troop deployment and feels animus toward his national security team for imposing it on him. Though that animus didn’t stop him from bombing Syria and threatening to torture and kill not just ISIS members but their families.
Ben: This notion that he’s such a peacenik is a little convenient.
Heather: As you note, we can’t say often enough that he has sent more troops to the Middle East (and used more force via drones and missiles) than his predecessor.
So how did this happen? Did the career National Security Council staff set up a call for him to warn Turkey off and he flipped the script? Or did someone close to him push for the call figuring this would happen? I did think someone would have leaked a MEMCOM by now.
Last thing, it reflects the near total collapse of a policy process run by professionals that wouldn’t have set it up that way.
Ben: Would you say this is the worst thing he’s done, foreign policy-wise, as president?
Heather: In terms of short-term impact on actual human beings, yes. We may yet see that some of the nuclear decisions have bigger global long-term consequences. Remember that the first round of Syrian war induced migration likely helped give us Brexit, and reflect on how broad the long-term consequences of instability created ad hoc with no gains for the U.S. might be. No gains even if you want troops home.
Ben: Now that Trump has betrayed the Kurds and given Turkey everything it wants, is it more plausible that he’ll pull another, similar impulsive move in the region, like pulling many more troops out of Afghanistan? What might be the next domino to fall? Or would the price among Republicans be too high for something like that? (Not that the president seemed to care much about reprimanded this time around.)
Heather: Things have been a little busy, so people may not have noticed that we did start withdrawing more troops out of Afghanistan in recent days. I think the impulsive move he would like to pull is talks with Iran.
Ben: That’s an impulsive move I support!
Heather: That is stymied not by GOP leaders who oppose it, but by his own desire for the visuals; Iranians feel that would undermine their legitimacy.
Ben: The Kurds have quite a long history of poor treatment at the hands of America. Do you think this latest reversal will prevent any partnership in the future? Or are they such hard-bitten realists that they know any alliance with the U.S. or anyone else is temporary?
Heather: Everyone knew this was temporary. It wasn’t supposed to be that rapidly dissolved. It was known that Kurds would have to make a deal with Assad. State had given some thought to what a long-term deal could be. But if you can’t trust Washington to even stay through the term of agreements it proposes, the cost of cooperation will be higher and terms more limited in future. And that assumes there’s a future in which the Kurds are a force it makes sense for the U.S. to cooperate with. Which isn’t certain.