After a calamitous Sunday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, where they had been working with Kurdish forces to curtail ISIS activities while blunting potential Turkish military aggression. On Wednesday morning, Erdoğan took the opportunity granted by Trump and unleashed an attack on those same Kurdish forces.
Trump’s abrupt decision to abandon those Kurdish forces to their fate presents a two-pronged dilemma for progressives, peace activists and everyone else who is tired of endless war.
The entire U.S. foreign policy establishment has loudly denounced Trump’s announcement as horrifying and dangerous. Congressional Republicans, eager to pretend they are not glued to the president’s gluteals, have erupted in the kind of harsh criticism normal people generally use when someone locks children in cages.
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Even the evangelicals are outraged: Far-right televangelist Pat Robertson warned Trump that his Syria decision puts him “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven,” whatever the Hell that means.
For peace activists, censure coming from these quarters does not carry much weight, as it was the foreign policy establishment — cheered along by evangelicals like Robertson — who got us into these forever wars to begin with. The fact that they hate this decision would, under normal circumstances, be an indication that we should consider supporting it.
Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances. Trump’s declaration of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, where they have spent the last five years partnered with Kurdish forces trying to dismantle ISIS while staving off Turkish aggression, will prove deadly to those former Kurdish allies, and may have dire consequences for the entire Middle East. The manner in which Trump made this decision is deeply troubling, as well.
The first prong of our dilemma is the question of peace. “Bring the troops home!” is as moral a stance as can be taken in this age of eternal war. On the surface, that metric would seem to make Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from this regional conflict a no-brainer reason for celebration.
Unfortunately, the details present a far starker picture. Though small in number, the U.S. forces deployed with the Kurds served to tamp down a resurgence of ISIS, and were a check against Turkey. Casualty numbers have been comparatively low, while the security return is high. Abandoning this partnership with the Kurds is having immediate and drastic consequences.
The absence of U.S. forces in this region is tantamount to issuing free reign to Turkey’s military, and some 2 million Kurdish civilians have been left even more vulnerable. The potential for several Guernica-style massacres is all too present, and the Kurds are now presented with a number of poor and potentially lethal options. Abandoning the Kurds was not an antiwar move. In fact, doing so just started another war.
“What to make, then, of Trump’s latest erratic and unpredictable decision to betray the Kurds, increase the likelihood of ISIS reviving itself, and creating many more years of instability and violence in northern Iraq?” peace activist Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, wondered when asked by Truthout to comment on the situation. “For ordinary villagers already displaced by violence and possibly desperate for food and income, I wonder if many might prefer to flee (certainly a nonviolent option) rather than risk their lives or lives of their loved ones over the issue of where a border is drawn or which politician or financial elite has their hand in their pockets ready to further rob them.”
Compounding this is the fact that Syria, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey and the Kurds, will almost certainly become involved in any conflict caused by this withdrawal, making this as combustible a situation as has been seen since Trump first took office. The foreign policy establishment folks appear to have a point, for once: As pressing as the need to bring the troops home is, keeping a small force beside the Kurds to stave off a massive multinational bloodbath was the most prudent option, at least in the short term.
The second prong is Trump himself, and the manner in which this decision was reached. According to reports, Trump’s Sunday phone call with Turkish President Erdoğan was a disaster. Erdoğan, seething at having been snubbed by Trump at the UN last month, managed to finagle not only Trump’s permission to invade northern Syria by way of a U.S. troop withdrawal, but got himself a meeting with Trump next month to boot.
A National Security Council source who heard the call told Newsweek that Trump got “rolled” by Erdoğan because he is “spineless.” According to that source, “President Trump was definitely out-negotiated and only endorsed the troop withdrawal to make it look like we are getting something — but we are not getting something.”
The fierce reaction to Trump’s withdrawal decision prompted him to issue perhaps the most ridiculous missive in presidential history. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate,” he tweeted on Monday, “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!).”
Trump’s line about his intention to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” raised a billion eyebrows, given the existence of Trump Towers Istanbul. Financially firebombing your own properties is not what one would quantify as a shrewd business move, emoluments clauses notwithstanding. The basis for his parenthetical “I’ve done before!” remains a mystery.
Yet it is the bit about “my great and unmatched wisdom” that draws my deepest concern. Trump is not sitting in the White House twirling his metaphorical mustache going “mwah ha ha hah,” nor is he thinking about the welfare of U.S. soldiers. He is playing ego games with policy in a region that has been trembling on the verge of comprehensive combustion for decades.
Trump is throwing lit matches at a pool of kerosene because he likes the pretty colors. “Great and unmatched wisdom”? I don’t think that’s gaslighting. His towering authoritarian ego, combined with his daily bouts of erratic rage, are bleeding into dangerous policy decisions that have the potential to get an awful lot of people killed.
This is one of the most frightening moments of Trump’s presidency to date, in my opinion, and that’s saying something. The fact that Trump’s untethered ego and authoritarian sympathies were the impetus for this Syria policy shift needs to be at the core of any considerations in this matter. The Kurds won’t be alone in paying the price if Trump’s reckless behavior is not reined in, and soon.