Trump’s Syria Policy: A Gift to Our Adversaries

November 27, 2019 – The sight of Russian flags over former U.S. outposts in Syria is a further indication that Trump’s betrayal of the Kurdsbeyond abandoning one of our most effective regional partnerswas a gift to Russia as well as Iran, Turkey and Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar Al-Assad. Trump’s betrayal gave each an unexpected opportunity to grow their regional influence at America’s expense, all while increasing the risk of ISIS’ resurgence. Just weeks after repositioning U.S. forces from northeast Syria, the dire toll—both strategic and humanitarian—is impossible to ignore. 

In needlessly betraying America’s Kurdish partners, Trump left them with no choice but to seek a relationship with Assad, who previously had represented a common adversary. More than 150,000Kurds fled their homes and hundreds have died—some by summary execution in what appear to be war crimes

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Turkey’s military incursion—which Trump effectively greenlighted—gave the Kurds no choice but to join forces with Assad to ensure their protection from Turkey’s onslaught, pushing a previously reliable counterterrorism partner into the orbit of our adversaries in the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran.

Trump’s repositioning of U.S. forces also laid out a welcome mat for Russia to expand its influence in Syria, threatening U.S. security interests there and throughout the region. Russia has been deliberate in sending an unmistakable message by widely broadcasting images of Russia’s white, blue, and red flags replacing America’s red, white, blue. 

  • Russia has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by our withdrawal, including by positioning attack helicopters at vacated American bases. America’s absence has been a boon to Russia, which now has more strategic credibility as a power in the region and has won a valuable propaganda victory.
  • A stronger foothold for Russia in the Middle East hurts our interests strategically—given its destabilizing authoritarian influence wherever it operates—and because of its repeated efforts to block attempts to hold the Assad regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons.
  • On Monday, Turkey tested its new Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which can pose a threat to American assets and, more significantly in the near-term, signifies Ankara’s deepening alliance with Moscow and distancing from fellow NATO Allies. The fact is that Russia doesn’t share our interests or our values—whether in deterring ISIS, using what limited leverage we might still have to end the civil war, or protecting Syrians from the mass atrocities Assad now seems all the more likely to commit.

The vacuum left by Trump’s withdrawal has created favorable conditions for the resurgence of ISIS, jeopardizing years of hard-fought counterterrorism gains. According to a recent Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, ISIS “exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops to reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.”

  • The Turkish military incursion also forced Kurdish fighters to abandon their posts guarding ISIS detention centers, resulting in more than 100 ISIS prisoners escaping and contributing to a long-running ISIS strategy of using jailbreaks to rebuild after setbacks.
  • The U.S. military this week resumed large-scale operations against ISIS in northern Syria, targeting pockets of the militant group that almost certainly gained in strength following the repositioning of U.S. forces and the onset of the Turkish assault against the Kurds. The threat posed by escaping ISIS prisoners not only destabilizes the region, but also threatens stability and security for our European allies, where ISIS has been active.
  • Worse still, Trump justified his carelessness by boasting that ISIS will only be “escaping to Europe,” not the U.S.—a vile statement that abandons our allies and ignores the reality that an empowered ISIS threatens violence everywhere, including in the U.S.

Instead of holding Erdogan accountable, Trump has instead allowed him to act with impunity while bestowing additional honors on the authoritarian leader. 

  • Trump impetuously decided to withdraw forces from Syria after a phone call with the Turkish President in which Erdogan reportedly “out-negotiated” him and offered him nothing of value to the US interests. What followed—Turkey’s military invasion into northern Syria—was entirely predictable in light of Turkey’s long standing threats.
  • The so-called ceasefire brokered between the United States and Turkey—which Trump has personally taken credit for—legitimized Turkey’s military action and gifted it territory it had long sought while lifting sanctions and taking new ones off the table. Trump’s deal gave Erdogan everything he sought with nothing to show for it.
  • In a bizarre move that rewarded Erdogan for this massacre, Trump invited him to the Oval Office, where he failed to even address accusations of brutal war crimes and human rights abuses by Turkish-backed forces against Syrian Kurds. Instead, Trump again professed his love for an authoritarian, saying that he’s a “big fan” of Erdogan.

By deploying U.S. troops to protect Syrian oil fields, Trump has made clear that, to him, protecting and potentially pillaging Syria’s oil fields is more important than protecting American security interests and those of our allies and partners. Trump in late October made his designs clear: “We want to keep the oil. $45 million a month? Keep the oil.” 

  • Trump’s plan to steal Syria’s oil places hundreds of U.S. troops at risk, forcing them to remain in an isolated and difficult-to-resupply part of Syria.
  • Moreover, it would seem to run afoul of Congress’ authorization for the mission in Syria, which is based on fighting ISIS — a group Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has “100% defeated.”
  • What’s more, the mission reinforces the worst conceptions of America as global pillager and marauder in search exclusively of economic gain. Terrorist groups and adversaries have alreadyseized on the propaganda coup Trump orchestrated for them.

Ultimately, we do not know what has motivated Trump’s series of reckless acts that have upended U.S. policy in Syria, forfeited hard won gains, and benefited our adversaries. But what we do know is that it had nothing to do with “ending endless wars.” 

  • After all, many U.S. troops will remain in Syria, while others will be relocated to Iraq. Additionally, 14,000 service members have been dispatched to the Gulf region in recent months according to the Department of Defense.
  • With our military presence growing, the situation on the ground deteriorating, and our adversaries gaining at every turn, we are left to wonder: whose side Trump is really on?

We are Americans—former senior officials and policy experts, academics and civil society leaders—who have seen first-hand how the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world when we stand strong with our allies, pursue principled diplomacy, and stay true to the values that have long defined America at home and abroad. www.NationalSecurityAction.org