Donald Trump recently announced by tweet that he would pull the last remaining US troops from northern Syria. This "decision," if anything so unpremeditated can be called that, came with no prior warning to Mr. Trump’s cabinet, to his foreign policy or military teams, to Congress, to other nations’ governments, to our allies in Syria - the Kurdish-led SDF - or even, it seems, to himself.
As best as we can tell from the news accounts, Mr. Trump simply "gave" northern Syria, as if he owned it, to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a whim, as the two discussed Syria and other matters by telephone Thursday. He did this against the explicit advice of his Defense Secretary James Mattis, who then resigned, and in full knowledge of Erdogan’s plans to launch a large-scale military operation against SDF’s Kurdish contingent (the YPG and YPJ) east of the Euphrates.
It is a reckless and irresponsible move, that is almost certain to reinvigorate what remains of ISIS, enable Erdogan to take his brutal persecution of the Kurds further into Syria, and lead to chaos and destruction in what has for years been the most stable part of the country and a safe haven for refugees: the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, better known as Rojava.
To our astonishment, many self-styled "progressives" in the U.S. have applauded Mr. Trump’s move.
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Through their post-9/11 filter, it apparently represents a long-awaited rollback of American imperial involvements that grew especially pronounced during the Obama, Bush and late Clinton years (and that our less recent history is full of). More "moderately" left-leaning Americans, for their part, have joined traditional conservatives in criticizing Trump for announcing that we will, in effect, be handing Syria to Russia and Iran.
Neither reply to Mr. Trump’s volte face is responsive to its real significance. This is not about neoliberal adventurism or imperial retrenchment on the U.S.’s part, nor is it about renewed cold war with Moscow or Tehran.
It is about the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava – and the obstacle that this quite remarkable, ethnically and religiously pluralist, environmentalist and feminist, decentralized democratic polity poses to Mr. Erdogan’s aims: to strengthen his own, increasingly theocratic and tyrannical rule, and expand it across the Near East. It is, moreover, about Mr. Trump’s personal-financial reasons for aiding and abetting Erdogan in his pursuit of this agenda.
To begin with the endorsement by the self-styled progressives: It is simply fatuous to characterize a rump force of 2,000 American soldiers and advisors as an imperial "outpost." These troops, whom President Obama dispatched to Syria in 2015 after initial efforts to arm Syrian Arabs and Kurds against ISIS were foiled by Erdogan, are no neo-colonial "police force." They are a tripwire, standing between Turkish forces to the north, and the inhabitants of Rojava that those forces are poised to attack.
Of course, no one believes that 2,000 Americans by force of arms could repel a Turkish onslaught involving scores of jet bombers, heavy tanks, and hundreds of thousands of Turkish regular army forces. But neither does anyone believe that Mr. Erdogan would stay long in power, or retain any military to command, were his forces to attack American forces interposed between him and his targets.
Mr. Erdogan claims that the YPG and YPJ are close enough to the PKK in Turkey, still classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., to justify an attack. But whatever one thinks of invading other countries on such grounds, it is clear that the planned attack is unlikely to selectively target fighters, and unlikely to respect human rights and international law.
If the invasion of Afrin last spring is anything to go by, what Erdogan has in store for the rest of Rojava are extrajudicial executions of civilians as well as soldiers, abductions and torture, followed by systematic ethnic cleansing – in the form of mass displacement – aimed at all Kurds, SDF fighters, and anyone perceived to be sympathetic to or affiliated with them.
Hundreds of thousands of those who lived in Afrin are now refugees, some for the second or third time. Those who remain face forced conversion to Islam, property has been appropriated or destroyed, and the olive groves that were the livelihood for many have been burned to the ground.
There is no reason to think that Rojava’s remaining cantons – Kobane and Jazira – will be spared this fate unless Mr. Erdogan is prevented from executing his plan. In fact there is plenty of reason to think that they will not be spared it, since Erdogan has quite the track-record now: despite the massive increase in censorship and suppression of dissent, the war crimes the government forces committed against the Kurds in southeast Turkey in 2015–17 have now been amply documented.
As for the more "moderate" U.S. Democrat and Republican responses to Mr. Trump’s strange announcement, it is true enough that a sudden withdrawal of America’s tripwire from Syria will strengthen both Moscow’s and Tehran’s hands in determining Syria’s future. Whether one welcomes or decries such an outcome will of course ride on one’s beliefs about Russian and Iranian aims.
But what all should be able to agree on are these three facts:
First, that the U.S. withdrawal will sharpen the religious civil war between the de facto Turkish and ISIS-backed Sunni, and the Iranian and Hezbollah-backed Shia, that is still underway in the Middle East.
Second, that the same withdrawal will force the Kurds to seek protection from the Shia side in that conflict, or perish. (Indeed they are already reaching out to Syria’s Assad.)
And third, that a U.S. withdrawal will not bring a "return to the international rule of law," as some progressives now proclaim. Removing the American tripwire will not induce a Turkish, Russian, Iranian, ISIS and Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria.
Syria simply will not be a functioning nation-state until its warring factions are able to settle their disputes in peace. And peaceful settlement is not on the cards for as long as those factions believe they can win decisive military victory: a belief that removal of the American tripwire will certainly underwrite.
In view of how spectacularly risky and self-destructive Mr. Trump’s strange announcement on Syria is, it is natural to query what could have prompted it.
At present the most plausible hypothesis appears to be this: that Mr. Trump, who both admires "strongmen" like Vladimir Putin and Erdogan in general, and is financially dependent on Russia and Saudia Arabia in particular, has simply prioritized one "foreign entanglement" over another – he has entangled himself in a personal dispute between Erdogan and Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman.
Since the murder of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil at MBS’s behest this past autumn, Erdogan apparently has been in possession of information that would be problematic for both MBS and the kingdom he theocratically rules.
Self-serving as he is, Erdogan means to capitalize on this "valuable asset" by extracting favors directly or indirectly, through Trump, from MBS. MBS, for his part, evidently bankrolls Trump and Kushner family businesses, as of course does Russia.
Trump’s withdrawal of American advisors is Erdogan’s price for not exposing Trump’s bankroller MBS. In a single stroke, then, Mr. Trump has moved to benefit his bankers and himself in return for selling-out both regional stability and the Near East’s only non-sectarian, democratic, reasonably well-functioning society – and the Kurdish people.
This is, of course, perfectly disgusting. One would be hard-pressed to find any more direct assault on the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of which is precisely to prevent personal pecuniary interests from determining or even influencing Presidents’ policy decisions. At least as important as that, however, is the genocidal and "democracidal" catastrophe Mr. Trump’s personal financial interests will unleash on Rojava and on the wider world.
When you hear more applause for Mr. Trump from the self-styled left in the coming days, then, know that you’ll be hearing more misleading rhetoric.
There will be no "imperial rollback" or "restored rule of law" with a withdrawal of the American tripwire in Syria; there will be only renewed forward movement by the power-hungry theocratic Erdogan and his shady accomplices.
And when you hear more denunciations of Mr. Trump from either "moderate" or "conservative" quarters, don't denounce and discount their demands that the U.S. stays just because there are bad reasons mixed into their call.
This is the bare truth: There will be no hastening of UN mediation or Russian-imposed final "settlement" in Syria if we withdraw; there will only be more religious and ethnic conflict and violence to which Rojava has emerged as a bright contrast. And there will be further Turkish massacres of Kurds.
When you hear sundry ersatz progressives, moderates, and conservatives applauding or decrying Trump’s move through their "world-historical" and ideological filters in the coming days, ask only one thing: What about Rojava? What about the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara? That is what matters right now. All else is distraction and sophistry.
Robert Hockett is the Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University. Twitter: @rch371
Anna-Sara Malmgren is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. Twitter: @ajamalmgren