Opinion

Trump Has Handed Turkey, Iran and Russia a Poisoned Victory in Syria

Trump’s abrupt Syria withdrawal has triggered hysterical headlines. But for America’s enemies, it isn’t such a wonderful gift

Rohani, Erdogan and Putin shake hands.
Pavel Golovkin/Pool/AP

President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate U.S. special forces and pave the way for a Turkish incursion into areas under Kurdish control appears to have been made in haste unbefitting a choice of such consequence. His abrupt decision also exacerbated doubts about U.S. dependability among its allies after it once more abandoned its Kurdish partners in the region. 

Yet despite sensational claims describing the decision as destroying U.S. credibility and a “triumph for Erdogan” as “a victory” to Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus, the reality is a bit more complex. 

When discussing the U.S. changing course and the decline of U.S. credibility as an ally, then the muted response to attacks on Saudi critical infrastructure in mid-September is a far more significant milestone than the recent redeployment in Syria.

As Pence pushes Syria cease-fire with Erdogan, Trump undercuts negotiationsAs Pence pushes Syria ceaHaaretz

In the Saudi case, changes in the political and energy spheres led the U.S. to buck an understanding that had endured for more than seven decades in which the Saudi kingdom provided for the free flow of oil and the U.S. guaranteed its security.

In the case of the Kurds, Trump evacuated troops in a step that was detrimental to a partner of convenience in the fight against the Islamic State for the past five years. While that actually represented more continuity than change in U.S. regional strategy, it elicited a far larger outcry in the West due to the fact that public sentiment is far more favorable to the Kurds than it is to the Saudis.

It is also worth adding a major caveat to the notion that Trump’s latest decision regarding Syria is a victory for Reccip Tayeb Erdogan of Turkey. Yes, Ankara successfully pushed Washington to facilitate its plan, but the White House may have given Turkey just enough rope: It is now headed into a campaign on foreign soil against a well-trained adversary in which its strategic goals and exit strategy remain unclear. Ankara’s enemies in the region will likely see this as an opportunity to extend their proxy wars with Turkey to the country’s borders.

Turkey's forces advance towards Manbij, Syria.
Ugur Can/DHA via AP
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 44Haaretz

On the financial plane, Turkey’s military incursion and refugee resettlement program could cost it tens of billions of dollars at a time when country’s economy is already contracting. If that were not enough, after giving the green light President Trump declared on Twitter that he would obliterate the economy of Turkey if it does some unnamed (and likely uncertain) things which the White House “considers to be off limits.”

The claim that Trump’s latest move is a gift to America’s enemies including Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria should also be taken with a grain of salt. While those rogue governments are in favor of U.S. withdrawal from the region so that they can expand their own spheres of malign influence, the potential implications of a Turkish incursion could also harm their interests.

Iran’s top officials, including President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, spoke out against Erdogan’s plans and urged restraint.

Protesters carrying a sign reading "Erdogan=ISIS" rallying in support of Kurds.
Francois Mori/AP

This was like the result of two key interests in Syria: the ambition that Iran’s ally Bashar Assad will retake the entirety of pre-2011 Syria, and concern over a backlash of Kurdish nationalism that could inflame the sentiments of 10 million Kurds living in Iran. According to Reuters, Iran conducted military maneuvers along its border with Turkey on the eve of the Turkish offensive, perhaps a warning sign to Ankara.

President Putin of Russia spoke to President Erdogan over the phone and urged him not to take any steps that could undermine a political settlement in Syria. Moscow may be enjoying its role of quite literally replacing U.S. forces in Syria, but it is also rightly worried that this new element of the Syrian conflict might breathe new life into a war that until now appeared to be drawing to close. That could, in turn, frustrate Russian efforts to end its campaign in Syria by converting its successful military campaign into a political victory.

Of course, President Assad’s promise to retake every last inch of Syria may become considerably more difficult to fulfill with Turkish military forces advancing in the country’s north. The Syrian Foreign Ministry did not welcome the news of an impending attack, and it described Turkish actions as “hostile” and pledged to “confront a Turkish assault.” While Damascus may find that the Kurds are more willing allies in the face of Ankara’s onslaught, it remains unclear to what extent that will allow for Damascus to exert control over SDF-run territories.

Trump speaks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

At the same time, the prospects of reigniting the simmering conflict, the creation of additional refugees or the return of those previously uprooted, and Turkish military occupation on Syrian territory would present considerable challenges to the Assad regime.

Despite their apparent partnership with Turkey in the Astana talks, Iran, Russia, and Syria are all urging restraint, if not outright condemning Turkey’s actions. Beyond the small but wealthy emirate of Qatar, there does not appear to be a single global or regional state that supports “Operation Peace Spring.”

All this is to say that, in addition to the potential military and financial difficulties ahead, the campaign could exacerbate Turkey’s chronic strategic loneliness. 

While it is clear that Syrian Kurds are the losers in this latest conflagration in light of the unconscionable violence reportedly committed against them, it appears too early to declare victors.

That will depend heavily on the question of whether the pro-Assad forces and Turkey-backed groups can reach and implement an agreement on the status of the Kurdish region of Syria – if they cannot then it may lead to protracted conflict of attrition between them or their proxies.

For Washington, even if the U.S. president proves his “deal-making” skills by brokering an agreement to end the violence, it will not resolve the major issue at the core of the latest crisis: a commander-in-chief who relies on his gut instincts to make snap decisions about issues of national security.