The Trump administration says it will stop supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria, though Turkey’s government first announced it last Friday. “Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a press conference, “and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago.”
Initially, there were grounds to believe this might not be true. Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government has become no more reliable and very nearly as hostile as the Russian and Iranian governments. And the White House was initially quiet and wouldn’t confirm what Cavusoglu said. That second-hand quote, though—“This nonsense should have ended a long time ago”—is exactly how Donald Trump talks, and severing ties with Syria’s Kurds is exactly what his disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn advocated when he was an unregistered foreign agent for the Turkish government inside the Trump team. It’s also the reason the president initially scrapped the Obama administration’s plan to take back the city of Raqqa from ISIS. That plan relied on Kurdish ground forces, and from Turkey’s perspective, the Kurds, not ISIS or the Assad regime, are the greater of evils in Syria.
Neverminding that the Kurds are America’s only true friends in that country, the White House has confirmed that the Turkish government is correct, that it will be “adjusting” the military support it gives to our friends.
Viewed one way, this is fine. The US supplied weapons to Kurdish soldiers to fight ISIS and liberate the city of Raqqa and for no other reason. That mission today is complete. Therefore, the Kurds don’t need more American help because Americans no longer need Kurdish help.
Viewed another way, though, Donald Trump is doubling down on the Obama administration’s grave misreading of Syria by assuming that ISIS was the only threat to Western interests in Syria. That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.
Rolling back ISIS in Syria and Iraq was relatively “easy” as far as armed conflicts in the Middle East go. ISIS was never going to be a terribly difficult problem to crack as long as it wasn’t allowed to fester indefinitely. The “caliphate” was land-locked. It had no allies, no real economy, no robust supply lines and precious little internal support from the terrorized citizens cowering under its rule.
The much larger and longer-term problem with Syria from the Western point of view is that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is an ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has been since 1979. It is also, by far, the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world and, after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Arab world’s most belligerent state. It has exported Sunni, Shia and secular terrorists to every single one of its neighbors, to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Israel, to Jordan and to Turkey. It dispatched Al Qaeda fighters against Americans in Iraq. It invaded and occupied Lebanon for well over a decade and, by incubating and nurturing Hezbollah, the PLO and Hamas, is directly responsible for more wars against Israel than I can count on one hand.
The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is poised to emerge victorious in the Syria war, stronger than ever, thanks to military assistance from Russia. Assad is surviving the biggest threat to his family’s rule since it seized power four decades ago. Short of political revolutions in Tehran and Moscow, he’s likely to die an old man in office. And he’ll have no incentive whatsoever to change his ways. He’ll continue exporting terrorism all over the region, and the next war between Israel and a now far-stronger Hezbollah will likely make the last one look like a peace process. The Kurds in Syria—our only true friends in that country—are likely to lose everything they have gained without American backing.
This is what happens when Americans grow weary of foreign policy and fool themselves, for fill-in-the-blank reasons, that Vladimir Putin is our friend.
Donald Trump owns this, and he owns it alone, mostly because he’s the president but also because his own team had planned for something entirely different in Syria. Just one day before he kicked the Kurds to the curb, administration officials told reporters that the US planned to use the Kurds, which now control large swaths of Northern Syria, to push Assad and the Iranian regime into a settlement. “We’re not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said a week earlier.
Those statements meant nothing. The strategy his team put into place didn’t amount to anything either. We’ll need to put an asterisk next to anything and everything they say in the future because it can and quite possibly will be undercut and reversed at any time on Donald Trump’s whim.
Trump himself made that perfectly clear on Fox News in early November. “Let me tell you,” he said, “the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”
Indeed, we have.