Five unintended consequences of Trump's Syria withdrawal

Five unintended consequences of Trump's Syria withdrawal
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s decision last week to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces, has already had several unintended, albeit foreseeable, consequences.

Trump has defended his move as fulfilling a campaign promise to end so-called forever wars.

But from the day he announced the retreat from northern Syria, critics of the move have warned of wide-reaching repercussions, ranging from ceding U.S. influence in the Middle East to spurring a resurgence of ISIS.

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And as Turkey’s incursion enters its second week, reports out of Syria indicate some of those predictions are coming to fruition, from ISIS prisoners escaping to Russia taking over military patrols of a key Syrian city.

Here are five unintended consequences of Trump’s withdrawal from northern Syria.

Kurds align with Assad

The Kurdish forces that partnered with the United States to fight ISIS are now turning to Syrian President Bashar Assad for their protection.

The autonomous Kurdish administration in northeast Syria, which controls roughly a third of the country, announced over the weekend that Assad’s government had agreed to help “repel [Turkey’s] aggression and liberate the areas entered by the Turkish army and its hired mercenaries.”

The agreement represented a major shift in alliances in Syria’s 8-year civil war and effectively put an end to the Kurds' autonomy, allowing Assad’s forces to move into the area for the first time in years.

Many had already considered Assad’s victory in the civil war inevitable at this point, but aligning with the Kurds further tightens his grip on power. It also raises the prospect of direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces, a potential bloody new phase in the war.

Russia’s influence grows

As Assad’s influence grows, so too does that of his main benefactor, Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that its forces were now patrolling Manbij. The U.S.-led coalition subsequently confirmed it had fully withdrawn from the key Syrian city.

Video posted online Tuesday appeared to show the Russian forces taking over an abandoned U.S. base in Manbij.

Kurdish forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, retook Manbij from ISIS in 2016. In the years since, it became a key sticking point for Turkey as it demanded the Kurds’ withdrawal. Washington and Ankara previously agreed to a roadmap for the city that would have seen the Kurds withdraw followed by joint U.S.-Turkish patrols to keep the peace.

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Now Russia is tasked with preventing a military clash between Turkey and Syria in the city.

While Russia and Turkey officially back opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, Moscow and Ankara have grown closer in recent years. Turkey, a NATO ally, bought a Russian missile defense system in what has been seen as a bellwether for Ankara’s turn away from the West.

As if to cement Russia’s new position as arbiter in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Yang jokes first thing he'd say to Putin as president is 'Sorry I beat your guy' Biden: Impeachment hearings show 'Trump doesn't want me to be the nominee' MORE visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week for the first time in more than a decade.

ISIS prisoners escape

There have been multiple reports of ISIS jailbreaks from Kurdish-guarded prisons amid the chaos of Turkey’s offensive.

In one of the biggest incidents, the Kurdish administration in northern Syria said 785 ISIS supporters had escaped a detention camp at Ein Eissa after a Turkish shelling, though the number has not been independently verified. The detainees got out after storming the gates and attacking the guards, the Kurds said.

Turkey has alleged that the Kurds emptied ISIS prisons themselves, an accusation Trump appeared to back Monday when he tweeted that “Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved.”

CNN and Foreign Policy, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the United States believes a Turkish-backed Syrian militia released ISIS prisoners.

Either way, ISIS fighters and their supporters are getting out, stoking fears of a resurgence months after the United States declared the caliphate destroyed.

Trump has dismissed the jailbreaks, saying the prisoners can be “easily recaptured by Turkey or European nations from where many came.” 

NATO tensions spill over

Trump administration officials have defended the withdrawal by saying the United States could not engage in a military confrontation with a NATO ally.

But Ankara’s operation in Syria has led to an all-time low in relations between Turkey and the United States, with Congress looking to impose steep penalties on the Turkish government.

Several other NATO allies have also taken steps to punish Turkey. Italy, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic have all suspended arms sales to Turkey.

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon chief: US giving Vietnam surplus ship for coast guard Talks stall on defense costs with South Korea Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran MORE said this week that he will press NATO to take action against Turkey for its incursion.

“I will be visiting NATO next week in Brussels, where I plan to press our other NATO allies to take collective and individual diplomatic and economic measures in response to these egregious Turkish actions,” Esper said in a statement.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday he has “serious concerns” about the destabilizing effect of Turkey’s military operation, adding that it will be a topic of discussion at next week’s defense ministerial.

“NATO does not support this operation, of course. Many NATO allies have expressed strong criticism,” he told reporters in London. “What I can say is that I’m deeply concerned about the consequences, both when it comes to the fight against [ISIS], human suffering and stability in the wider region.”

Questions swirl about nukes in Turkey 

It’s been an open secret that the United States houses about 50 nuclear warheads at Turkey’s Incirlik air base, though U.S. officials have consistently declined to confirm that.

Arms control advocates for years have raised questions about the wisdom of the location, expressing concerns about the potential that the warheads could fall into the wrong hands.

Questions about the security of the nukes were raised after an unsuccessful coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016.

With U.S.-Turkish relations plummeting over Syria, The New York Times cited two unnamed U.S. officials Monday saying State and Energy Department officials were quietly reviewing plans for evacuating the bombs.

Arms control advocates say removing the weapons from Turkey is long overdue.

“Seriously, it’s time to take our f---ing nuclear weapons out of Turkey,” Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, tweeted after U.S. troops in Syria came under Turkish artillery fire Friday.

“The Obama and Trump Admins should have listened to those of us who could see the handwriting on the wall in 2016,” he added in another tweet Monday. “Pull the bombs now.”