Opinion | National Security

Trump's decision on Syria is nothing short of disaster

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The Turkish invasion of Syria, prompted by President Trump's sudden and stunning announcement that he would withdraw troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, spells only trouble for America's position in the region. It has boosted Iranian and Russian - and even Chinese - standing in the Middle East. It has once again demonstrated American unreliability by betraying Kurdish allies. It has created new humanitarian pressures on a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that abuts Rojava, the Syrian Kurdish enclave, and that has tried mightily to maintain good relations with Washington and the West. And it could lead to an Israeli direct strike on Iran in response to any new provocation by Tehran.

It is certainly true that Iran and Russia would have preferred that Turkey not go more deeply into Syria than it already has done. Iranian spokesmen made that very clear. Nevertheless, Tehran and Moscow, as well as Beijing - an increasingly active player in the region - can only benefit from widespread regional perceptions of American unreliability. America has betrayed the Kurds before, beginning with the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that dismembered the Ottoman Empire but ignored the Kurds. 

Yet, in the past five years, it was not just the Kurds that sought American assistance against the Islamic State; Washington needed the Kurds every bit as much to fight the land battle against the Islamic extremists. 

The Kurds have not been the only victims of American perfidy.  For years, Pakistani leaders have complained that the United States is not an "all-weather ally" (as, they assert, are the Chinese).  At times Washington has provided military support to Islamabad; at times it withheld that support. Similarly, Russian and Iranian support for their longtime Syrian ally, despite pronouncements by President Obama and others that Bashar al-Assad was on his last legs, has demonstrated to regional actors that Moscow and Tehran likewise were "all-weather allies." 

Particularly for Israelis - whose prime minister was only recently speaking of a defense treaty with the United States, as well as the Gulf Arabs, whom Washington has encouraged to work together against Iran - President Trump's unwillingness to face down palpable aggression against an ally that has fought and died alongside American troops is an exceedingly ominous development.

Trump's impulsive decision regarding Syria may lead Israel to conclude that America will not rush to its defense if attacked, either directly or more likely indirectly, by Iranian missiles or drones. Instead, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear in recent days, Israel will strike not merely at Iranian oil facilities but at Tehran itself. There could only be one result: a major conflagration between the region's most powerful actors. Ironically, despite Trump's desire to avoid war, it is unlikely that the United States would, or could, simply observe such a conflict from the sidelines.

In betraying the Syrian Kurds, Washington has undermined the stability of the Iraqi Kurds as well. Actually, there is little love lost between the Iraqi Kurds and their Syrian cousins. Moreover, the KRG has made it clear that it simply cannot take in hundreds of thousands of additional refugees above the million or more who already find themselves in Iraqi Kurdish territory. The regional government's resources are precarious enough as matters currently stand; its military, in particular, simply could not handle a major new influx of Syrian Kurds. Trump's decision could encourage yet a new ISIS assault on the overstretched and weakened Kurdish Peshmerga.

President Trump seems totally consumed by the impeachment investigation. To the extent he focuses on anything else, it is on his campaign promise to pull troops out of the Middle East and not engage in any new conflicts. As far as he is concerned, the Kurds are a selfish people who did not land troops on Omaha Beach in June 1944. His myopia is nothing short of astounding; it only matches the breadth of his ignorance of international realities. 

If the United States finds itself sending troops back to the region to fight ISIS or, worse still, to come to Israel's assistance in yet another all-out Middle East war, Trump will have only himself to blame.  

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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