Trump’s Syria move gets neg­a­tive re­sults

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Lee

Hardly any­one was cheer­ing the lat­est re­sult of Pres­i­dent Trump’s un­pre­dictable foreign pol­icy.

WASH­ING­TON >> The U.S. must es­cape the “End­less Wars” in the Mid­dle East, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­peat­edly de­clares. Mis­sion ac­com­plished, at least in the short­est of short terms. When on Wed­nes­day Turkey at­tacked the Kurds, Amer­ica’s long­time bat­tle­field al­lies, U.S. troops had evac­u­ated from harm’s way.

But hardly any­one was cheer­ing the lat­est re­sult of Trump’s un­pre­dictable foreign pol­icy.

From Iran to North Korea, China, Iraq, Afghanista­n and Venezuela, nearly all of Trump’s foreign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties re­main works in progress nearly three years into his pres­i­dency. All have been punc­tu­ated by abrupt shifts that have frus­trated and alien­ated friends and al­lies, con­fused foes and ri­vals and left the im­pres­sion that “Amer­ica First” re­ally does, as crit­ics say, mean Amer­ica alone.

But none has pro­duced such speedy or po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing con­se­quences.

High-pro­file sum­mits with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un fol­lowed threats of “fire and fury.” Of­fers to open a di­a­logue with Iran fol­lowed the im­po­si­tion of harsh sanc­tions. Both ef­forts have yet to pro­duce de­fin­i­tive out­comes.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban aimed at with­draw­ing U.S. forces from Afghanista­n have been hit with fits and starts. The trade war with China con­tin­ues apace. Venezuela re­mains a morass with Ni­co­las Maduro still in power de­spite at­tempts to dis­lodge him.

No such de­lay with Turkey, Syria and the Kurds.

Trump’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to pull Amer­i­can troops out of the Mid­dle East opened the door to the Turk­ish in­cur­sion just 72 hours af­ter the White House an­nounced the U.S. would pull back from the TurkeySyri­a bor­der and not stand in the way.

“This clearly has an im­me­di­ate, se­quen­tial con­se­quence that very few of the other de­ci­sions he has made have had,” said Aaron David Miller, for­mer U.S. diplo­mat and se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace. “It has had a di­rect and neg­a­tive im­pact, al­though how cat­a­strophic re­mains to be seen.”

On Wed­nes­day, Trump him­self called Turkey’s mil­i­tary as­sault a “bad idea” that the U.S. did not “en­dorse.” U.S. of­fi­cials held out hope that the at­tacks could be lim­ited. But the start of com­bat along the bor­der marked what may be the fail­ure of a high-risk, com­plex strat­egy sup­pos­edly de­signed to pre­vent just such an out­come.

Of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strat­egy say it was drawn up to try to rec­on­cile the harsh re­al­i­ties of Trump’s in­sis­tence on with­drawal and Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s in­sis­tence on at­tack­ing. One of­fi­cial de­scribed the choice the ad­min­is­tra­tion faced as ei­ther get­ting into a shoot­ing war with Turkey, a NATO ally, or stand­ing down and press­ing Turkey hard to limit its op­er­a­tion with threats to pun­ish it eco­nom­i­cally if Er­do­gan should go too far.

Trump’s abrupt de­ci­sion a few days ago to re­move the Amer­i­can shield — just a few dozen sol­diers but, cru­cially wear­ing U.S. uni­forms — that was keep­ing the Turks away has been met with wide­spread con­dem­na­tion from sup­port­ers as well as the usual crit­ics. Con­dem­na­tion from nor­mally reli­able Repub­li­can Trump al­lies on Capi­tol Hill has been no­tably fierce.

The Kurds have ac­cused Trump of a gross be­trayal. U.S. of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that but also say it was un­avoid­able in the face of Er­do­gan’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to go af­ter the Kurds, whom Turkey ac­cuses of be­ing ter­ror­ists and a se­vere threat.

Repub­li­cans as well as Democrats in Congress, and many na­tional de­fense ex­perts, say the move has placed U.S. cred­i­bil­ity as well as the Kurds and re­gional sta­bil­ity at great risk. By all ac­counts, the Kurds were the most ef­fec­tive force in fight­ing the Is­lamic State in the re­gion.

“I think it makes it less likely that oth­ers will want to work with the United States in the fu­ture,” said Bradley Bow­man, se­nior di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on Mil­i­tary and Po­lit­i­cal Power at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, a Wash­ing­ton think tank with hawk­ish views on the Mideast.

“The foreign pol­icy is not clear,” said Rahim Rashidi, a Kur­dish jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton. “It is dif­fi­cult to tell who is a friend, who is an en­emy.”

The ar­gu­ment that the un­pre­dictable and volatile Trump was fol­low­ing through on a plan put to him by ex­perts is im­plau­si­ble to many, par­tic­u­larly his crit­ics, who see the pres­i­dent as im­pul­sive and con­cerned more about his own im­age than in U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity. Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike de­nounced Trump’s first an­nounce­ment as reck­less and self­de­feat­ing, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­tempts to clean it up put Trump into the role of both good cop and bad cop with the Turks.

Mind­ful of Trump’s pledges to even­tu­ally with­draw all Amer­i­can forces from Syria and Er­do­gan’s in­creas­ingly vo­cal threats to fight the Kurds, the U.S. plan was to present Er­do­gan with a stark choice: ei­ther co­op­er­ate with its NATO ally at min­i­mal cost to en­sure Turkey’s se­cu­rity from le­git­i­mate threats it faces from the Kurds or go it alone with an in­va­sion and bear all the con­se­quences.

Af­ter ini­tially opt­ing for co­op­er­a­tion — which meant the U.S. per­suad­ing the Kurds to move away from the bor­der and with­draw em­place­ments and heavy weapons, and bring­ing the Turks into joint air and ground pa­trols and in­tel­li­gence shar­ing — Er­do­gan be­came in­sis­tent on go­ing ahead with an in­cur­sion. Ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials, Trump called his bluff in their Sun­day phone call.

Faced with al­most univer­sal crit­i­cism, the ad­min­is­tra­tion scram­bled on Mon­day to re­gain the up­per hand. Trump threat­ened in a tweet to “oblit­er­ate” Turkey’s econ­omy if it hit the Kurds hard and twice re­peated the threat in per­son at White House ap­pear­ances.

At the same time, U.S. of­fi­cials were telling the Turks through mil­i­tary, diplo­matic and in­tel­li­gence chan­nels that any ma­jor op­er­a­tion against the Kurds would cause ma­jor dam­age to U.S.-Turkey re­la­tions.

On Tues­day, Trump shifted tack. Af­ter con­sul­ta­tions be­tween the White House, the State Depart­ment and the Pen­tagon, he tweeted a friendly mes­sage to Er­do­gan, prais­ing the two na­tions’ re­la­tion­ship and con­firm­ing that he had in­vited the Turk­ish leader to visit Wash­ing­ton in Novem­ber.

What some saw as scat­ter­shot in­co­her­ence was, in fact, the next stage of the plan: an of­fer to re­ward Er­do­gan for hold­ing back on the Kur­dish op­er­a­tion. Crit­ics don’t buy it. “Now, goody goody, we’re go­ing to in­vite you to come visit the White House, and what­ever do­mes­tic value that has for Er­do­gan in Turkey, this is re­ally dan­ger­ous,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tues­day.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, is shown with Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, as they ar­rive to­gether for a fam­ily photo at a sum­mit of heads of state and gov­ern­ment at NATO head­quar­ters in Brus­sels, in this file photo.

LEF­TERIS PI­TARAKIS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this photo taken from the Turk­ish side of the bor­der be­tween Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, San­li­urfa prov­ince, south­east­ern Turkey, smoke bil­lows from a tar­get in­side Syria dur­ing bom­bard­ment by Turk­ish forces Wed­nes­day.

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