The Turkish invasion of northern Syria, which Donald Trump green-lighted last week, has already turned into a humanitarian disaster for the Kurds, at least a hundred thousand of whom have been displaced. It is now mushrooming into a strategic disaster for the United States, which appears weak, powerless, and isolated. It also risks turning into a political disaster for Trump, whose bungling incompetence and boundless arrogance may finally be catching up with him. If the analysis of James Mattis, his own former Secretary of Defense, proves accurate, Trump could well go into the 2020 election as the President who allowed Isis to make a comeback. Arguably, that would be a bigger threat to his prospects of reëlection than the Democrats’ efforts to impeach him.
This was the context for Monday evening’s announcement from the White House that the United States was demanding a ceasefire and imposing economic sanctions on Turkey. In a phone call with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump “communicated to him very clearly that the United States of America wants Turkey to stop the invasion, to implement an immediate ceasefire, and to begin to negotiate with Kurdish forces in Syria to bring an end to the violence,” Vice-President Mike Pence told reporters. Pence also said that he and Robert O’Brien, the new national-security adviser, would travel to Turkey for talks.
Trump himself was vague about exactly what he said to Erdoğan. On Twitter, he posted a statement, saying, “I have been perfectly clear with President Erdogan: Turkey’s action is precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes.” But the statement didn’t say anything about demanding a ceasefire, and in other tweets Trump continued to defend his decision to pull U.S. troops out of the area near the Syria-Turkey border. “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte,” he wrote. “I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”
But, despite Trump’s bluster, it was clear that his hands-off approach had backfired so spectacularly that it was no longer sustainable. In recent days, senior Republicans such as Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham joined those criticizing the decision to abandon the Kurds. Even inside the White House, the President was dangerously isolated. “Trump was told on Monday afternoon by advisers that it would be costly not to do anything, that the absence of the United States from the region could strengthen Iran, and that the deteriorating situation could hurt him politically,” the Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim and Karen DeYoung reported on Monday night.
The Administration’s about-turn came after days of alarming news from Syria. Over the weekend, Turkish-backed militias summarily executed Kurds, including a female human-rights activist, and Turkish troops swept deep into Syria to cut off major highways. Even more disturbing, from the perspective of Trump’s political advisers, was a report that hundreds of Isis fighters had escaped from a prison camp run by the Kurds. Since the U.S.-backed rout of the Isis caliphate in eastern Syria, about ten thousand Islamic State prisoners have been confined to camps. Last week, a commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the Kurdish fighters, told NBC News that guarding the Isis camps, for many Kurds, is now a second priority.
Trump may well be correct that most of his supporters, and perhaps even a majority of Americans, are sympathetic to the argument that it is time to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. (The polling on this is a bit ambiguous; a lot depends on how the question is framed.) But there is certainly very little support, particularly among Republicans, for abandoning the U.S. military fight against Isis. And a resurgence of the terrorist group—a possibility that Mattis warned about over the weekend—could well be disastrous for the President.
Some Democratic Presidential candidates are already seizing on the reports about the Isis prisoners. “President Trump betrayed our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and endangered our hard-won gains against ISIS. . . . He has failed as Commander-in-Chief to safeguard our country & protect our troops,” Joe Biden tweeted, on Sunday night. On Monday, Pete Buttigieg tweeted, “One week later, we see ISIS fighters escaping and Assad and Russia advancing. This president is not ‘ending an endless war,’ he’s fueling one.”
But it wasn’t just the Democrats who were issuing warnings about the folly of Trump’s policy. “For years, the United States and our Syrian Kurdish partners have fought heroically to corner ISIS and destroy its physical caliphate,” McConnell said in a statement, on Monday. “Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS.”
Trump never admits fault, of course, but some of his tweets suggest that he feels vulnerable. “The U.S. has the worst of the ISIS prisoners,” he wrote in a tweet, on Sunday night. “Turkey and the Kurds must not let them escape. Europe should have taken them back after numerous requests. They should do it now. They will never come to, or be allowed in, the United States!” Trump was referring to reports that, in the hours before the Turkish invasion, members of the U.S. Special Forces had detained some of the most notorious isis members, including two dubbed “the Beatles,” who are believed to be responsible for the torture and murder of U.S. journalists and British aid workers. But these detentions did nothing to secure the bulk of the Isis prisoners, and neither did Trump’s tweet. On Monday morning, he tried to shift the blame. In another pair of tweets, he wrote, “Europe had a chance to get their ISIS prisoners, but didn’t want the cost. ‘Let the USA pay,’ they said. . . . Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved. Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly. Big sanctions on Turkey coming!”
You can tell when Trump is cornered: he lashes out at everyone. In this case, the Europeans, the Turks, and even the Kurds are to blame. Pretty soon, he’ll find a way to blame Biden, and perhaps Hillary Clinton, too. But this time Trump’s blame-shifting isn’t working—and Monday evening’s U-turn indicated that many of the people around him realize it, even if he doesn’t. Here’s the Washington Post report again: “It ‘has been a days-long effort to get him in a better place,’ one official said of Trump, adding that Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been key in that effort.”
But is Trump really in a better place? Erdoğan may well ignore Trump’s pleas for a ceasefire. And, in any case, the situation on the ground has already changed utterly. Turkish forces now occupy key border towns. The Kurds, abandoned by Trump, have made a defense pact with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, whose troops have swept into areas they haven’t controlled for years. As for isis: “On the messaging app Telegram, they have declared a new campaign of violence across Syria,” Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, reports. “They lost their territory, the ‘caliphate’, but those who stayed out of jail—or a grave—have reconstituted themselves in sleeper cells to carry out guerrilla attacks.”
Trump can’t turn back the clock. His only hope is that his envoys to Turkey, Pence and O’Brien, can somehow extricate him from the disgraceful mess he’s created.