Donald Trump's decision to pull troops out of Syria is one of the most shortsighted foreign policy miscalculations in recent memory. The president's actions leaves the West's Kurdish allies at the mercy of Turkey. And Trump's bizarre attempt at justification – claiming that he abandoned the Kurds because they didn’t help the United States in the Second World War – adds insult to injury. After thirty years of the US seeking to present what president George Bush called a “new world order,” a cynical American leadership is retreating – and the country's friends are paying a heavy price.
Eastern Syria, which was one of the few relatively peaceful areas of the country, was slowly being rebuilt after being liberated from Isis. Now Turkey is bombing it. Ankara argues that the US partnered with elements of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and this gives Turkey a right to invade the region. The US has acknowledged Turkey’s security concerns, with American forces on the ground in eastern Syria even working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mostly Kurdish forces that have been fighting Isis, to remove any fortifications that Turkey said were a concern. But this wasn't enough to stave off Erdogan.
Turkey’s real goal in eastern Syria looks increasingly like demographic change, settling several million Arab refugees from other parts of Syria in the Kurdish areas along the border. Ankara presented a map at the UN General Assembly last month showing its demands to control the region. It proposes a £22bn ($27bn) project to build a 'safe zone', housing a million refugees there. But why didn’t it embark on this project in Afrin or Jarabulus, areas it already controls?
Turkey's goal in choosing this area is two-fold. It is aimed at destroying the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and replacing it with Arab rebel forces recruited from among Syrian rebels. That solves two issues Turkey faces. It enables the country to increase its military role in Syria. Crucially, it also gives president Erdogan a key nationalist win back home, while also reducing the pressure from Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The likely end result of what is unfolding in eastern Syria is that Syrian rebel forces, now reconstituted under a Turkish banner as the Syrian National Army will be used as a proxy force by Ankara against America’s partners, the SDF. Considering that both the US and Turkey initially got involved in the Syrian civil war to oppose Bashar al-Assad, it is strange that the last major conflict of the war will be fought not against Assad but between the last two independent groups in Syria that oppose Assad. Russia and Iran will certainly be enjoying the irony of this, watching the destruction of the SDF and the eventually sidelining of the Syrian rebels who are being funnelled into eastern Syria alongside Turkish armed forces.
As for the United States, Washington has lost out on influence in Syria and been humiliated more widely in the Gulf when Iran attacked Saudi Arabia on September 14, evading US-built defences. And while Trump has made much of the so-called Isis 'Beetles' now being in US custody, the president has presented no plan for what will happen with other Isis detainees held in eastern Syria.
Walking away from Syria without consulting allies with forces on the ground, including the UK and France, shows the US has become erratic in its foreign policy. Trump’s assertion that America can’t fight endless wars is a fair critique of US open-ended involvement in places like Afghanistan. But the Syrian operation against Isis was successful and relatively short. It consisted of hundreds of special forces combined with air power which leveraged the local fighters to defeat Isis. If Washington wanted to wrap up its operation it should have done so gradually and while making things clear to its allies and partners. Instead the US has thrown eastern Syria – and the country's vital Kurdish allies – away as if it was sending back cold soup at a restaurant.
Seth J. Frantzman is author of ‘After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing 2019).’ He is correspondent with the Jerusalem Post and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis