Trump and his foolish foreign policy decisions

Trump and his foolish foreign policy decisions

U.S. President Donald J. Trump decided to pull troops from Syria now that the Caliphate of the so-called Islamic state has been defeated. This is not just a major blow to the Kurds in Syria, who have led the ground fight against ISIS since 2014 under the auspices of U.S. military support. 

It is also an astonishing move that appeases Turkish objectives in northern Syria despite Turkey’s recent acts of defiance against the transatlantic alliance. President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE’s decision will erode U.S. credibility in the Middle East and will haunt American foreign policy in the region for years to come.

The sheer abruptness of explaining Turkey would “soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” according to a White House press statement, and assume responsibility over all of the captured ISIS fighters in the area is serious and should be understood in the context of impeachment proceedings against Trump. This could well be an attempt by the president to divert the public’s attention away from the allegations against him. But this decision strains U.S. foreign policy in the region and the administration’s relationship with and to Turkey. 

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It is a known fact the Kurdish population in northern Syria has proved a much more faithful ally to the United States in the fight against ISIS than Turkey since the terrorist group’s rise in the summer of 2014. Turkey had dismissed ISIS outright in 2014, calling it “a group of angry young men.” 

But when those dangerous young men wreaked havoc in Syria, the Kurds were the only group in the region with the willingness to fight back and the ability to take over the areas, like Kobane, captured by ISIS. Kurdish fighters proved to be resilient and loyal to the fight against the terrorist group, particularly at a time when ISIS cells were being discovered in Turkish towns such as Adiyaman

It is against this backdrop the United States had decided to further support the Kurds militarily at the expense of its NATO ally. The U.S. was determined to defeat ISIS, and the Kurds fit the bill to ensure this without having to put American boots on the ground. 

Turkey’s own fight against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the country’s legitimate fears of watching an independent Kurdish state form along its southern border, were lost in the details.  

With Trump’s announcement Sunday night, the Kurds in Syria are left hung to dry. An all-out military operation in northern Syria to diminish the Kurds militarily has been brewing for some time in Turkey.

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Indeed, the Turkish Armed Forces have been engaging in piecemeal military operations in Syria to prevent the formation of a contiguous Kurdish region along its southern border. The U.S. withdrawal, which began in early Monday morning, clears the terrain both militarily and politically for Turkey to intervene with full force. Letting Turkey get its way in Syria is not the best way for Washington to thank the Syrian Kurds. 

Asking Turkey to deal with captured ISIS militants is also potentially deleterious for the key U.S. foreign policy objective in the region, namely, the eradication of religious extremist terrorism. Some Turkish towns such as Adiyaman and others on the Turkish-Syrian border were well-known hubs for ISIS. In 2015, during the peak of the fight against the terrorist group, a bombshell report by the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet revealed that Turkey had transferred weapons to ISIS in an effort to weaken the Assad regime and challenge the Kurds along the way. Fast-forward to 2019, the United States is handing over ISIS militants to Turkey with no reservations. 

What is there to stop Turkey from turning a blind eye to prison breaks, or worse, cooperating with the militants to fight on its behalf? The militants know the terrain, and they certainly have the willingness to fight the Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has every reason to keep troop casualties at a minimum; he has a precarious position at home due to a shrinking economy.

The decision to withdraw is a bewildering position for the United States for other reasons. It seems Trump has just turned his other cheek to Erdogan given the recent row with Turkey over buying an air missile defense system. Openly defying the United States and its NATO partners, Turkey proceeded with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system earlier this summer. 

This controversial purchase naturally prompted a wave of debate among U.S policymakers over what the appropriate response to Turkey should be, ranging from suspending the sale of the F-35 to economic sanctions. Trump tweeted on Monday that he would ‘obliterate’ Turkey’s economy if the country does “anything” that he thinks is “off limits.” But what is the credibility of such threats when the actual U.S. behavior in the Middle East rewards Turkey’s ambitions? None, really.  

Trump’s decision surely comes at a critical time for him. He has shown us time and time again, he is not afraid to take foolish foreign policy decisions, especially when it is convenient for him to take the spotlight away from him at home. The result is appeasing Turkey for no apparent reason, however, and with nothing for the United States to receive in return. 

Broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Middle East will not be fulfilled as long as Washington’s inconsistent behavior continues. The withdrawal decision is a major win for Erdogan, but it has weakened U.S. credibility in the region. 

Sibel Oktay is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a 2019-2020 Public Voices Fellow.