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  • Steve Dunne

Toddler-in-Chief: Why Trump's unilateral Syria strategy spells disaster

On October 6, the White House released a statement following a conversation between Presidents Trump and Erdogan announcing Turkey would be imminently ‘moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria’. The casual Sunday announcement accordingly declared U.S. troops embedded with allied Kurdish forces – who, it should be noted, were not mentioned by the statement – would withdraw to allow for creation of a “safe zone” under Turkish supervision. Justified as departing organically following victory against Islamic State, this decision in practice served to rob Kurdish militias regarded by Turkey as terrorists their protection. Prompting condemnation from virtually all quarters, Kurdish leaders labelled the move a ‘stab in the back’ and a betrayal of the more than 11,000 Kurdish soldiers who died in the fight against Islamic State (compared to the United States’ 71).

Before considering both local and wider implications, it is important to highlight events on the ground are rapidly changing. In the past days, Syrian President Assad and Kurdish forces – who have been nominally at war for the past eight years – reached a potentially game-changing and historic accord to jointly repel Turkish incursions. Meanwhile, President Trump was forced into imposing sanctions against the NATO ally whose actions he approved, dispatched Vice-President Pence to Ankara, and a temporary – if fragmentary – ceasefire has been, as of time of writing, agreed.

Assuming the situation does not resolve itself swiftly, an unlikely scenario given Turkey’s abject refusal to bend to Western pressure, several unfortunate outcomes are becoming increasingly unavoidable as a result of President Trump’s strategically misguided unilateralism. Firstly, there will be continued loss of life among a people that have already suffered enormously. Syrian Kurdistan – formally the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria – fought long and hard on many fronts for even the unrecognised and contested self-government it held and will not allow itself to be quietly erased. Whether this involves additional alliances with previously unlikely partners, such as Russia or Iran – who, in turn, may seize the opportunity to advance their own regional interests and alter the balance of power in the Middle East – or the adoption of increasingly desperate tactics targeting domestic Turkish targets, remains to be seen and largely depends on the success or failure of their asymmetrical war-fighting.

Secondly, one cannot overstate the importance of the Kurds to the decline of Islamic State. The tens of thousands of men and women who constitute the Syrian Democratic Forces – of whom Kurds represent a sizeable proportion – were fundamental to efforts to defeat militants. Serving as the principal ground troops throughout the campaign, in more recent months these forces have been responsible for interning thousands of captured enemy combatants. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has made no secret his desire to see these men released to be returned to the battlefield and, were this to happen, Islamic State would be gifted an opportunity to recapture vast swathes of territory creating the potential for many years of continued military struggle. Faced with an onslaught from the Turkish border, Kurdish militias are confronted with an awful choice: to allow Turkey to roll over their homes or decrease their presence at these installations. Understandably unable to stand idly by, we can already see the inevitable consequences, with hundreds of family members of Islamist militants escaping from the Ain Issa camp on October 13.

Regarding the United States, the sudden betrayal of an ally which bore indescribable costs on behalf of all those targeted by Islamic State serves to intensify already widespread perceptions of America as an unreliable partner presently governed without reference to geopolitical, strategic, or moral concerns. Eye-rolling comments that because the Kurds weren’t present on the Normandy beaches – which, in point of fact, neither was Turkey nor any member of President Trump’s own extended family – they therefore deserve whatever is inflicted upon them, directs attention also towards the erratic whims of an inexperienced and childish narcissist-in-chief, in so doing further denigrating America’s dwindling global standing.

Perhaps, however, the greatest implication of President Trump’s impulsiveness for the United States can be observed via historical retrospection. Since the formation of Pax Americana, U.S. foreign policy has been recurrently characterised by a pattern of employing local stakeholders as disposable contractors. From the Hmong people of Laos, to the Nicaraguan Contras, to the Islamist Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, this strategy has been persistently implemented to enable the United States to intervene while offering precipitously greater insulation from harmful events on the ground. Allowing for politically more tolerable troop deployments, risking fewer American lives and dollars in the process, on occasions where engagement with local stakeholders has become overshadowed in favour of an overwhelming application of military might the outcomes have proved conspicuously less favourably. The singular brutality of President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, surpassing even American failings to adequately protect allies in Vietnam in 1975, likely signals at the very least the temporary end of this long-standing approach. Already on shaky ground following repeated outbursts of aggressive unilateralism, no marginalised group, however desperate, would be foolish enough to gamble their futures on the word of the existing White House.

Rehabilitation of the necessary appearance of trust to facilitate international cooperation will undoubtedly become a centrepiece for successive administrations – as it did under President Obama – but whether efforts can be successful in reversing the colossal reputational damage caused by this decision, among others, remains far from certain.

IMAGE: Flickr/The White House

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