Analysis

Trump's Decision to Abandon Syria's Kurds Is Bad News for All U.S. Regional Allies

President's move lays the groundwork for other players on the Syrian court to fulfill their interests – and Israel should worry, too

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters gather near the Syrian-Turkish border north of Aleppo on October 7, 2019.
Nazeer Al-khatib / AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move several hundred American soldiers out of the way as Turkey poises to invade southeast Syria is bad news for America’s allies in the region. Trump thereby gave a green light to a dangerous Turkish move while ditching America’s most reliable allies in Syria: the Kurdish fighters.

The president’s move paves the way for other players in the Syrian arena to realize their interests. First and foremost is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but ISIS, as well, and indirectly, the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and its two main supporters, Russia and Iran. From Jerusalem’s perspective, it is another warning sign that this president – until recently presented as Israel’s greatest friend ever in Washington – can’t be trusted.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 43Haaretz

>> Read more: Israel caught by complete surprise at Trump's Syria withdrawal decision ■ As far as Trump is concerned, the Kurds did their job and can now go to hell | Analysis ■ What does Turkey really want by invading Kurdish Syria?

Trump seems to shy away from any American military involvement whatsoever in the Middle East. In that, he shares the reservations of his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama. In December 2018, after declaring victory over ISIS, Trump announced he would be removing all 2,000 American soldiers from Syrian soil. His statement peeved U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who quit, but in any case the decision was blurred down the line. The U.S. still has more than 1,000 soldiers in Syria’s northeast corner – mainly intelligence and commando units, and units operating missile batteries in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an association of anti-Assad groups whose main constituent is the Kurds.

The Kurds, backed by the Americans, blocked the Syrian army from taking back this region and at the same time, stymied an ISIS resurgence. At the al-Hol refugee camp, about 70,000 people hailing from areas controlled by ISIS remain under loose Kurdish supervision. Many are family members of the jihadi terrorists and the camp is considered a hotbed of violent radical fundamentalism. Turkey’s conquest of the area could scatter these refugees far and wide, and intensify the potential threat from the next generation of ISIS.

However, from Erdogan’s perspective, the real terrorists are the Kurds. He has been declaring for quite some time that he wants to establish a security zone, most of which would be in Syrian territory under Kurdish control, about 450 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide, along the border. Erdogan has also said he intends to resettle a million Syrian refugees now in Turkey in that area. The alternative, he hints, is to allow the refugees to move to the European nations bordering on Turkey, an option they don’t appreciate.

The White House announcement about extracting the American soldiers was made at 11 P.M. on Sunday night Washington time, and in the beginning, it was overshadowed by the political crisis over impeaching Trump following the Ukraine scandal. But soon enough, independent pundits and experts began to express their nausea at the idea, apparently reflecting a similar sentiment in Pentagon circles and to a certain degree in the State Department.  

If the Turks do invade, the Kurds could launch a guerrilla war against them and find new friends down the line to replace the Americans. And the leaders of the pro-American regimes throughout the Middle East are likely to ask, ever more urgently, just how much Trump can be trusted.

There is also a lesson for Israel’s leadership, apparently. Just a few months ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers were jostling one another during that mortifyingly groveling ceremony in which a settlement in the Golan Heights was named after the American president. Since then, a promise to sign a defense pact between the two nations, tossed into the ether on the eve of the second election, seems to have evaporated. Again one must wonder whether too much reliance hadn’t been placed on Trump, at the cost of Netanyahu distancing himself far from the Democrats and undermining traditional bipartisan support in Washington for Israel.