The Mideast Trump Leaves Behind: A Resurgent ISIS, an Arab Spring Comeback

Trump's abandonment of Kurds will have far-ranging regional repercussions

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U.S. forces in Syria, October 6, 2019.
U.S. forces in Syria, October 6, 2019.Credit: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

There’s something over the top, even artificial, about the moral outrage that has descended on politicians and journalists – in the United States, in Europe and in Israel – in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds and remove the American troops from northeast Syria, thereby enabling a Turkish invasion.

To begin with, it’s ridiculous to apply moral standards to Trump. He has never had any such considerations, and a cursory glance at his biography should have been enough to tell us that this is a person who will not hesitate to stab his allies in the back and then lie about it without batting an eye. And second, when it comes to the Middle East, Trump is following in the footsteps of his predecessor in office, Barack Obama, and shares the gut feeling of many American voters from both major parties. He wants to reduce U.S. involvement in the region and certainly to diminish the scope of its military commitment.

Some of Trump’s recent comments are appallingly dumb, possibly even breaking his own records in that department. On Wednesday, he explained in response to condemnation of his decision to abandon the Kurds to their fate, that “They didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy.” But in terms of American politics, Trump is far from being dumb. With his eye on the 2020 election, now a little more than a year away, he has detected the strong isolationist sentiment among both Republicans and Democrats, and calculates that, beyond the fury in Washington, the move could well bring him more political gains than losses.

The Democrats will not be able to turn the Kurdish story into a new version of China’s fall to the Communists at the end of the 1940s (a strategic blunder of which the Republicans accused the Democratic administration of President Truman for decades). The average American voter has a hard time distinguishing between Kurds and Turks and between Sunnis and Shi’ites. For them, the Turkish offensive is being played out beyond the dark hills. It has no immediate effect on their lives, and if young Americans were pulled out to keep them out of harm’s way, so much the better.

Civilians flee amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on October 9, 2019. Credit: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

The reports about how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan outmaneuvered his American counterpart in a phone call between them on Sunday also attest to Trump’s superficial grasp of foreign policy issues. The complete surprise with which his decision was received by the levels below him illustrates the deep disconnect between the president and the administration’s experts. Trump has no patience with intelligence experts, prefers updates from Fox News and is utterly capricious in his decision-making. Even so, it’s hard to see his blundering performance in the latest crisis having political implications in November 2020.

Arab Spring redux

In contrast, the Americans’ dumping of the Kurds will likely have repercussions for the Middle East in general and for Israel in particular. Regionally, the development reflects the continued decline of American interest and, consequently, of its influence. From the moment the United States broke free of dependence on Arab oil as an energy source, it has been increasingly less willing to get involved in the Middle East. The ongoing American withdrawal, which began under Obama, is clearing the way for the rise of other forces, notably Russia and Iran. Neither country has Israel’s best interests at heart. In the background, the Sunni alliance that tried to push Washington into taking more aggressive moves against Iran is weakening.

Amid all this, a vacuum is about to be created in Syria that could enable the revival of the Islamic State. According to the Washington Post, the Kurds are holding about 11,000 ISIS militants in some 20 makeshift detention facilities in areas under their control. The departure of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated coalition, is liable to allow ISIS detainees to escape. It’s doubtful the Turks have any interest in supervising either these facilities or the Al-Hawl displaced persons camp, where about 70,000 civilians, including the ISIS terrorists’ relatives, are huddling.

So far, Turkey has focused on preparatory steps for a ground invasion. On Wednesday, Turkey began shelling artillery at Kurdish positions along the Syria-Turkey border, and Syria reportedly captured two border villages on Thursday. Erdogan claimed that over 100 armed Kurds were killed. meanwhile tens of thousands of civilians have fled the area.

Because Trump is sending contradictory signals (a White House statement on Wednesday termed the Turkish invasion a “bad idea”), the Turks might decide to proceed with caution. There’s a difference between taking over positions near the border, five kilometers inside Syria, and capturing a larger strip 30 kilometers deep. A more comprehensive move will trigger a mass flight of civilians and probably intensify friction with Kurdish troops.

The regime of President Bashar Assad declared victory in his country’s civil war lst year, after completing the takeover of the country’s south with massive Russian aid. The events in Syria’s northeast, and also to the west of that area in the Idlib enclave, where tens of thousands of armed rebels are entrenched, indicates that the war has not ended, even if the winner’s identity is painfully clear. The fact is that the instability in the Arab world remains. The events of the past few months show that the shock waves released a decade ago are still reverberatomg, and that the Arab regimes cannot feel safe about their rule.

More than a hundred people have been killed in Iraq this month in demonstrations focusing on governmental corruption. In Egypt, a new wave of demonstrations against the authorities began about a month ago. And in Jordan, a lengthy teachers strike ended only after King Abdullah yielded to most of the demands put forward by the demonstrators – who, the royal court fears, are in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Spring is returning, under new management.