On Thursday, President Trump offered a vaguely humanitarian sentiment when he tweeted a soft warning to the governments in Moscow and Damascus to avoid civilian deaths in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on the Turkish border:
Of course, Trump’s call for peace in the region would have had more of an impact if he had not surprise-announced the withdrawal of close to 1,000 troops from the Syria-Turkey border in mid-October. It was the third time Trump has announced a troop withdrawal from Syria after hanging up the phone with Turkish president Recep Erdogan.
Though Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from the region — only to deploy soldiers to eastern Syria to protect its oil fields later in October — led immediately to the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of thousands of Kurds in the immediate wake of the pullout, the situation in Idlib cannot be immediately blamed on the president. While the U.S. absence led to Turkish-backed violence against America’s Kurdish allies and helped create a power vacuum in the region at large, the barrage in Idlib involves Syrian forces bombing Al Qaeda–linked militants in one of the last major rebel holdouts in the country, which is in its ninth year of civil war.
If Trump’s leverage is now effectively nonexistent, the consequences of handing over full accountability to regional actors is very real: In Idlib, 252 civilians have been killed in recent weeks, while over 216,000 have been displaced. Many are heading to the Turkish border, where the U.N. has warned of a potential humanitarian disaster.