A disgraceful policy decision just made Syria’s problems worse
In late 2011, on a trip I made to the Kurdish part of Iraq, Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani told me of a meeting he had convened of Kurds from the broader region, in which he warned them of the coming war in Syria. “You must prepare again,” he said he told them, “to try to survive.”
Barzani’s warning to his fellow Kurds reflected a deep understanding of their tragic history and the fact that survival may be more the goal than outright victory. Yet Barzani could not have predicted the emergence of ISIS and its bloodthirsty conquest of vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. Nor could he have anticipated the depth of the war clouds, and the extent of the forces that have gathered under them — from Hezbollah militia members to Iranian military advisers, the Sunni Arab Islamist insurgencies, their bank accounts swelled by funds from the Arab Gulf states, to the various Arab Shia militia groups.
He could not have anticipated the Russian multiyear deployment of air and ground assets there to keep the government of Bashar al-Assad in power. And he certainly could not have anticipated that an American president would have assessed the situation so blithely, using only his gut instincts to issue the order to American troops in the field to cut ties with the Kurdish forces and make way for the Turkish army.
President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria — and, in so doing, abandon our hard-fighting Kurdish allies — is a moment that will live in infamy in the region and in the conscience of America. What is clear is that the complexity of the Middle East exceeds President Trump’s capacity to understand it. His combined inability to absorb that complexity and to sit and listen to people who know what they are talking about led to this fateful, disgraceful policy choice.
One might fairly ask, where were his policy advisers who surely understood the lurking prospect for catastrophe when he took that telephone call from Turkish President Erdogan? Did they agree with his decision, which he had signaled as early as nine months before when he first tweeted his desire to pull out of Syria? If they did not agree, did they make their views known to him?
Sometimes if one cannot talk a boss out of a bad idea on substance, the next set of trench lines is over the issue of process. Did these advisers insist on a process involving interagency meetings, information memos, briefing memos and the other accoutrements of sound government decision-making? Last December, when President Trump began feeling his gut for a decision on pulling out of Syria, his special envoy to that country, Brett McGurk, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both resigned. It appears that President Trump now has the team he wants. No one likely put up a whimper.
As often happens when the president makes an ill-informed decision that immediately sets in motion a predictable set of disastrous consequences, he begins rummaging through his toolbox and comes up with an instrument to show he is being tough after all. This policy backfilling has begun, in the form of working with Congress to impose economic measures against Turkey. No one, probably not even the president, believes that such measures will have the slightest impact on Turkey’s actions.
As if to add to his reputation for feckless ex post facto moves, President Trump has announced that he will send Vice President Mike Pence to negotiate a ceasefire. On a scale of unintended comedy, one can only imagine the powerless vice president dutifully reading his talking points, while his Turkish interlocutor rolls his eyes and looks at his watch. One thing that President Trump has made brutally clear is that, in his administration, he is the only person who counts. There is no “team” in the Trump team, and no point in listening to anyone else.
A number of Republican elected officials have spoken out against the betrayal of the Kurds in Syria. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an increasingly mysterious figure in American politics, has condemned the president’s move in surprisingly strong terms. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), often seen striding around with President Trump on a golf course, went on the airwaves to criticize the president. None of these statements is likely to affect the president’s decision — much less alleviate the suffering of the Kurds, driven from their homes by the Turkish onslaught.
Syria is indeed a complex problem. It was not made easier by the fact that many observers of the situation wanted to take on the difficult problem of getting rid of ISIS and add to it a policy of regime change in Damascus. President Trump may have simplified the problem by abandoning any ambitions to find better governance in Damascus, while greatly worsening the problem of addressing ISIS. The Kurds were the only force in the field actually fighting ISIS. Can anyone expect them to do so again?
President Trump’s woeful lack of knowledge and his willingness to wing things were bound to cost lives and create chaos at some point. It has happened in Syria. And those who continue to believe in this president, with his capacity for creating problems or making them worse, might want to reflect on whether America can do better than this. Syria is a charter member of the Club of Problems from Hell. A problem that seemingly couldn’t get worse just did, thanks to the United States.
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador, including as U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2009-10. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.
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