President Donald Trump once again made the subtext just text on Wednesday, saying during a press conference with the president of Italy that Turkey’s recent attack on Northern Syria “has nothing to do with us.”* For good measure, he threw in a time-honored justification for state violence, saying of the Syrian Kurds, who have fought and died for years now in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, “They’re not angels.” He also employed the Turkish talking point that the Kurdish militant group PKK is as big a security threat as ISIS.
It’s not too shocking that this is Trump’s attitude. As Fred Kaplan has pointed out, Turkey’s incursion into Syria wasn’t an isolated accident. Despite Trump’s insistence Wednesday that he never gave Turkey the “green light,” this was the intended consequence of Trump’s executive order pulling U.S. troops from the area last week. As the order states:
Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.
So it’s not surprising that Turkey did move forward with its long-planned operation and that Trump is fine with that. What’s surprising is that the administration has spent recent days acting as if it was completely caught off-guard by Turkey’s actions.
On Monday, Trump announced that he was imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and agencies, raising tariffs on its steel, and canceling upcoming trade talks. “The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate and finance these heinous acts in Syria. I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” Trump said in a statement. The president also spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Vice President Mike Pence, “President Trump communicated to him very clearly that the United States of America wants Turkey to stop the invasion, implement an immediate cease-fire and to begin to negotiate with Kurdish forces in Syria to bring an end to the violence.” Pence himself has been dispatched to Ankara along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Erdogan to press him to negotiate a cease-fire.
Erdogan could be forgiven for being a little confused. Why is he being threatened and sanctioned for doing something that Trump gave him permission to do? As Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most reliable toadies in Congress as well as one of his most outspoken critics on Syria, put it, “The statements by President Trump about Turkey’s invasion being of no concern to us also completely undercut Vice President Pence and Sec. Pompeo’s ability to end the conflict.” Yes, senator. They certainly do.
There are a couple ways to look at what’s going on. One is that the administration has been putting on a show this past week. Even the sanctions, some critics suggest, are relatively mild, too late to have much impact on the ground, and could have been a way to head off more aggressive action targeting Turkey from Congress.
Another perspective is that the scope and brutality of the Turkish operation has gone beyond what the administration expected. (Certainly U.S. forces coming under Turkish artillery fire couldn’t have been anticipated. The whole justification for this order was to take troops out of harm’s way.) Axios has also reported that some senior officials believed Erdogan was bluffing, that he wouldn’t launch a large and risky offensive that could sink Turkey into a military quagmire. But Erdogan has not exactly been coy in recent years about his desire to wipe out the perceived Kurdish threat in Northern Syria.
Yet another possibility is that administration officials, military commanders, and congressional Republican hawks are scrambling to contain the damage done by the president. It’s certainly not the first time that Trump and his senior officials have seemed to be carrying out diametrically opposed foreign policies, though this dynamic has gotten rarer since Trump ejected all the advisers who made a habit of disagreeing with him.
Pence, Pompeo, and Graham may be generally disturbed by what’s happening in Syria right now. But Erdogan, who made his plans very clear, is not their problem. It’s Trump.
Correction, Oct. 16, 2019: This post originally misquoted Trump, based on a now-corrected ABC News article, as saying that Turkey’s military operation in Turkey is “not our problem.” He said, “It’s not our border.” He did also state that the operation “has nothing to do with us.”