On Wednesday, the President of the United States defended his decision to abandon the Kurds in northern Syria as “strategically brilliant.” With scores of Kurdish fighters and civilians killed and approximately 200,000 people fleeing the fighting as refugees, he went on to say of the situation, “It’s a problem we have very nicely under control. It’s not our problem. They’ve got a lot of sand over there… There’s a lot of sand they can play with.”
Yesterday the president sent Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo to confer with Turkish President Recep Erdogan to stop the slaughter of the Kurds. Mr. Trump congratulated himself for solving a crisis that he started by giving a “green light” to Turkish plans to conduct an operation perilously close to ethnic cleansing. In reality, Mr. Trump gave away the farm and tried to make it sound like it was the cows’ fault.
If this is Mr. Trump’s idea of a “great deal” I want to sit down with him because I will walk away with everything that I want. Our negotiation with the Turks was totally one sided — theirs. Turkey got everything they set out to achieve when they crossed the border last week and the Kurds got nothing — maybe not even their lives. Fighting continues today during the supposed “pause” — and the Turks emphasized that it was not a cease fire, merely a pause in an ongoing operation.
In exchange for the Turks’ five day pause in the fighting, the Kurds got a directive to leave their homes and flee or surrender to their fate at the hands of the Turks. And the United States looks weak and foolish.
The Russians got everything they wanted in Syria. And we look weak and foolish.
The Syrians got everything they wanted. And we look weak and foolish.
The Iranians got everything they wanted. And we look weak and foolish.
Last night this is what the President of the United States said about the abandonment of our Kurdish allies.
“Sometimes you have to let ’em fight. Like two kids in a lot, you gotta let ’em fight and then you pull them apart.”
It is clear that Mr. Trump has no appreciation for human life or respect for anyone not named Donald Trump Sr. These callous remarks reflect so much about his outlook on, well, everything. He even seemed to endorse ethnic cleansing when he said of the Turkish attack on the Kurds that Turkey had to do it, because the Turks “had to clean it out.”
It is a national embarrassment, except that Mr. Trump knows nothing about shame.
Turkey got their “safe zone” in the former autonomous Kurdish region of Syria. In return, the United States promised to lift all sanctions imposed or threatened. Syria re-occupied parts of northern Syria without firing a shot after years of not having the ability to go there. Iran increased their influence in the Middle East and now has an uninterrupted supply line from Tehran to their surrogate Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as access to the Israeli border. Russia is now the primary power broker in the Middle East. ISIS is taking advantage of the chaos to make attacks in the region and coming dangerously close to freeing their thousands of fighters from prison camps. (Several hundred are known to have already escaped. Mr. Trump said that the Kurds released them just to embarrass him.)
Here is what the world saw of some of our country’s best fighters. Abandoned camps left so hastily that food was left out and personal items forgotten. Russian television loved showing the videos of their troops surveying that scene. U.S. troops are holed up waiting to be airlifted out. U.S. aircraft attacked our own former anti-ISIS headquarters after the troops left so quickly that officials feared useful ammunition, equipment and other assets would fall into the hands of other armed groups.
I am sure Russian President Vladimir Putin is tired of winning. He certainly is getting a fabulous return on his investment in the 2016 election.
Reasonable people could make a case for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. It could have been done in a disciplined, methodical and diplomatically sensible way over time that protected the interests of the Kurds as well as our NATO ally Turkey. It could have included a viable resolution to the fate of thousands of hardened ISIS fighters imprisoned in the region. Instead we just bugged out and left the world the worse for it.
Other countries certainly took note. Allies, friends and enemies now know that the United States no longer stands by its word and that the president could wake up any day and undo decades of diplomacy on a whim.
Strategically brilliant? About as brilliant as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ceding the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938 and declaring “peace for our time.”
As the Turkish military attacked our Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS, yesterday the president attempted to answer questions from the press about his motives in abandoning the Kurds to their fate. Seeing the results of his whimsical and unilateral decision, made in the dark of a Sunday night, to acquiesce to Turkish demands to allow them to invade Kurdish territory, the president went on the defensive.
Among other things he was asked was if he had any qualms about giving Turkey a green light to attack the Kurds, knowing that it would be a devastating attack with the potential for a huge loss of life. His response? Well, all I can say is that it is baffling in its irrelevance and display of total ignorance. In trying to explain that we do not really owe the Kurds for helping us to fight ISIS, he was dismissive of the alliance.
“Now the Kurds are fighting for their land. They didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy, for example.” — Donald J. Trump
It gets better. When asked if our betrayal of our ally would have an impact on our other alliances, he said, “No it won’t. Alliances are very easy.” He then went on to disparage our NATO allies.
And better still. When asked if he was concerned that the ISIS prisoners, about 16,000 strong, might escape, reconstitute, and once again become a security threat to the U.S. he said that he was not at all concerned. Or in his words,
“Well they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go. They want to go back to their homes. But Europe didn’t want them for months. They could have had trials, they could have done whatever they wanted, but as usual, it’s not reciprocal.” — Donald J. Trump
Life and national security are hard. But it is a lot harder when you are ignorant. People die.
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime (Syria).” Senator Mitch McConnell (Tr-KY)
“ISIS is not defeated. This is the biggest lie being told by this (Trump) administration.” Senator Lindsey Graham (Tr-SC)
In case you missed it between all of the president’s Tweets, including calling for the impeachment of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and of Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) for “treason” (for the record, Senators and Representatives cannot be impeached), Mr. Trump impulsively called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria.
The reactions above represent the level of consternation this decision created in Congress and the national security community.
It is worth taking a few minutes to consider the difference between what this is, and what this means. They are not always the same thing. Knowing the players makes a difference. What it is is a military re-deployment. What it means is a serious blow to our national security and a possible massacre in the making.
For a few years now, roughly 1,000 U.S. uniformed personnel, mostly Special Operations Forces (SOF) have been in northern Syria working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS. The U.S. SOF act primarily as advisers and trained and equipped the SDF to be a very effective light infantry unit. The SOF also coordinated U.S. artillery and air strikes to support the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.
The SDF is a multi-ethnic force of about 60,000 people that includes Arabs, Christians, Assyrians and Kurds, the largest group of fighters in the SDF. Roughly 13,000 of them gave their lives in this effort. They control a large section of Syria in the north along the Turkish border. They also run and guard a camp of ISIS prisoners and their families that numbers about 16,000 battle-hardened fanatics.
The Kurds are from an area in the Middle East that straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They have pushed for an autonomous state since the early part of the 20th century. None of the countries around them want them to have that state, especially Turkey. Indeed, Turkey considers the Kurds, specifically a group called the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, a terrorist organization. They want them gone. As a result, the Turks intend to move into the Kurdish occupied areas of Syria in order to displace — read militarily defeat — the Kurds and to settle a million Syrian refugees in the area in order to close it to the Kurds.
Since the Turks consider the Kurds to be terrorists, and the Turkish military has heavy weapons and tanks and high tech arms to go against Kurdish rifles, machine guns and low tech weapons, without U.S. air support, the possibility of a massacre is high.
The Turks see Mr. Trump’s decision as a “green light” to invade and destroy the Kurds.
The president decided to abandon the Kurds to their fate late on Sunday night following a phone call from Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Mr. Trump consulted with no national security advisers — civilian or military — before announcing that we would withdraw. Everyone was taken by surprise including the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), militarily responsible for Syria, that announced a new security plan to monitor the area between the Kurds and Turks to ensure the security of all involved. Within 24 hours of the announcement of the new plan, the U.S. was gone from the border.
The Russians, Syrians and Iranians couldn’t be happier to see us bug out.
Remember that the president announced a similar move late last year which caused Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to resign his post. The president then back-tracked on pulling U.S. forces out. This time, Mr. Erdogan’s arguments were more persuasive, I suppose, and Mr. Trump did not consult with anyone so that he could not be talked out of it. All very whimsical with serious consequences.
In a nutshell, here is what this means.
- We abandoned an ally that did most of the fighting and dying to protect our national interests. It will be nearly impossible for the U.S. to convince any group or country around the world that we will have their back in the future when we need their help to protect our own people and interests.
- A foreign leader dictated to our president what actions to take that were counter to our national interests. (Again?)
- The president took unilateral action without consulting any adviser knowledgeable of the situation or otherwise able to explain the dire consequences of this action to our friends and allies the Kurds. The point will be driven home when pictures and video emerge of the loss of Kurdish men, women and children (all are fighters in the SDF).
- The president assured our country that the Turks will not do anything drastic in a Tweet (of course — foreign policy is now conducted almost exclusively by Tweets). I, for one, am not assured. Here is the essence of the rambling Tweet. “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” For a second there I thought maybe the Wizard of Oz was president. But then I realized I think he actually considers himself to be above the rest of us — in a Biblical sense. Are you assured? And what does destroy and obliterate Turkey mean?
- The Kurds stated that they will no longer guarantee the integrity of the prison camp containing the 16,000 battle-hardened ISIS fighters and families. The likelihood of a massive prison break is high. Those ISIS fighters will not go quietly into the night and the result is an immediately reconstituted force that will rejoin other ISIS fighters still scattered throughout the region. Many are former residents of European and other countries outside the Middle East, thus raising the probability of terrorist attacks around the world.
- Like every other decision Mr. Trump seems to make, this one was based on money. Perhaps because he has a Trump Towers in Istanbul? He stated that it would save the taxpayers money. One should ask how expensive 1,000 troops in the field leveraging a a non-U.S. fighting force of 60,000 people might be compared to U.S. and other nations’ lives lost when ISIS becomes a viable fighting force again?
The bottom line is that this decision is a major blow to our national security. It was made without any understanding of the consequences. It undermines our relationship with every ally we have now and might wish to have in the future. It allows for the reconstitution of ISIS. It shows that our national policy making apparatus is broken. It shows that the president believes himself when he says that Article II of the Constitution allows him “to do whatever I want.” It shows that he believes himself when he says “I alone can fix it.” It shows that he believes himself when he says it’s easy to work for him because “I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work.” It shows he believes himself when he says “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.” It shows that he believes himself when he says that he is a “stable genius” with “great and unmatched wisdom.”
It also shows just how dangerous this man is as president.