In the month since President Trump made the surprise announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the policy has slowly disintegrated into a mess. First, the snap decision cost him a Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, who inspired bipartisan respect and trust. Second, anxious allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel urged the President to rethink a move that might strengthen the regime of Bashar Assad and its backers in Russia and Iran.
Then on Jan. 16, several U.S. troops were killed in Syria by alleged ISIS operatives–almost exactly a month after the President’s confident assurance that he was pulling out because ISIS had been defeated. The attack threatened to prove right the critics who said a hasty withdrawal would inspire the Islamic State to new brutalities.
Trump firmly believes that Americans don’t want an open-ended commitment of U.S. troops and taxpayer dollars to another inherently unstable Middle Eastern country. Although he has been forced to slow the drawdown and has dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reassure regional allies that the U.S. intends to help “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, he wants to find a way to fulfill a promise to his base to stop “endless wars.”
Aside from ISIS, one of the most serious obstacles to that goal is Turkey, paradoxically one of the few U.S. allies to welcome the U.S. withdrawal. It was during a friendly phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Trump first agreed to the policy shift. Since then he has discovered that withdrawal means leaving Syrian Kurds, who are U.S. allies, at the mercy of Turkey’s military, which would like to destroy them. Erdogan insists that Syria’s Kurds are enemies of the Turkish state and that their ties with Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey threaten his country’s national security.
In early January, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said U.S. troops would not withdraw unless Erdogan promised to leave the Syrian Kurds alone. Erdogan bristled at Bolton’s remarks, telling the Turkish parliament “it is not possible for me to swallow this.” On Jan. 13, Trump poured fuel on the fire by tweeting that the U.S. “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”
The following day, the two came to a compromise of sorts in a conciliatory phone call in which they discussed a buffer zone intended to keep Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border. But it’s not clear who would police that if U.S. troops do indeed leave the country. Trump might just have been telling Erdogan what he wanted to hear.
And that was before ISIS resumed killing American troops. Trump has made clear that Syria is not among the subjects that interest him most. He’s described the country as a place of “sand and death.” But while Americans are dying there, it becomes more difficult to claim the withdrawal as mission accomplished. And it will be impossible if Erdogan decides to target U.S. allies instead of ISIS.
The two leaders have much in common. Both are charismatic men who inspire deep loyalty from their strongest supporters, and both bristle when they feel they’re being insulted. Unless they can reach some kind of common ground over the U.S. withdrawal, Trump’s Syria policy looks set to become not just a mess but a quagmire.
This appears in the January 28, 2019 issue of TIME.