The word endorses did a lot of work in President Donald Trump’s statement yesterday on Turkey’s military offensive into northern Syria. “The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” Trump said, continuing:
From the first day I entered the political arena, I made it clear that I did not want to fight these endless, senseless wars — especially those that don’t benefit the United States. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place and we will hold them to this commitment.
Perhaps Trump did not actively encourage Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to order the attack, but it’s hard to interpret his actions as anything other than an invitation. Erdogan has not exactly been coy about his intentions. And contrary to Trump’s argument that he’s doing this to withdraw the U.S. from costly and complex Middle East wars, his actions are more likely to ensure that the U.S. military remains enmeshed in them, long after he leaves office.
The desire to remove U.S. troops from Middle East wars is laudable, and shared by many of those criticizing Trump this week. But it’s not clear that U.S. troops are actually leaving Syria. One senior administration official has told reporters that Sunday’s announcement “did not constitute a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria and that only 50 to 100 U.S. special operations forces were moving to other locations in Syria.” As such, Trump’s announcement was less that he is bringing the troops home than that he is ordering those troops not to stand in the way as Turkey wipes out the Kurdish allies they have been working with to fight ISIS.
What Trump’s action did do was effectively blow up months of intensive negotiations to avert a Turkish offensive by establishing a safe zone that would be monitored by joint U.S.-Turkish patrols, between Kurdish-controlled territory and the border. The tentative deal reached in August required the Kurds to remove fortifications from the border, meaning that not only did the U.S. invite Turkey to attack its allies—it persuaded those allies to remove their own defenses before doing so.
The safe zone plan was far from a guaranteed success, but it’s unclear that there was any particular reason to abandon it now, other than the possibility that Trump was sick of hearing Erdogan complain to him about it.
There are parallels here to Trump’s actions on Afghanistan last month, when he broke off ongoing peace talks with the Taliban after, bizarrely, inviting its leaders to Camp David for talks. In that case too, success from this diplomatic imitative was far from guaranteed, but there was no good reason not to continue it other than Trump’s impatience for results.
If Trump is serious about lessening U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, he has missed some clear opportunities. The president’s views on America’s role in Syria have focused entirely on military power. The idea that the U.S. could be exercising its influence with something other than bombs never seems to enter the calculation. The administration has shown little inclination to engage in a sustained way with diplomacy in Syria, effectively letting Russia, Iran, and Turkey take the lead.
As Robert Worth reported for the New York Times Magazine last year, in the wake of the U.S. launching airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s military in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons in 2017, a European diplomat asked then–national security adviser H.R. McMaster, ” ‘Now you have leverage: What will you do?’ McMaster stared back at him blankly, he told me. ‘For them, it was not leverage,’ the diplomat said. ‘It was just a strike.’ ”
This mindset was very much on display when the president tweeted earlier this week that if things take another turn for the worse, “we can always go back & BLAST!”
It’s quite possible we may need to. Turkey’s offensive is likely not only to damage America’s diplomatic credibility and create a humanitarian crisis; it could lead to the escape of thousands of ISIS prisoners currently being held by Kurdish forces. In one of his more galling statements in a week that was full of them, Trump said this wouldn’t be America’s problem since they would likely be “escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go.” With northeastern Syria once again an active battlefield, and Iraq engulfed in a new round of political chaos, conditions are certainly ripe for a new resurgence of ISIS or a new organization that takes up its mantle.
Supporters of both presidents won’t like it, but there is a comparison to be made here to how the Obama administration drew back its diplomatic engagement in Iraq and threw its support behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian and sectarian rule led to the security breakdown that allowed ISIS’s rise. The threat of ISIS, as well as its atrocities against minority civilians, then led to the return of the U.S. military to Iraq, and later its deployment into Syria.
Whether it’s in response to a direct terrorist threat to American interests, or a massacre in this region that captures U.S. public attention, the likelihood that the U.S. will once again be drawn into large-scale military conflict in either Iraq or Syria, under this president or the next one, has risen this week.