Late Sunday night, the Trump administration announced that it was pulling American troops from key positions near the Syria-Turkey border and explicitly permitting the Turkish government to conduct military operations against the Kurdish allies who were indispensable in defeating the ISIS caliphate. This decision represents not just a moral betrayal of men and women who fought and bled by our side in the battle against the world’s most powerful jihadist army, it represents a strategic blunder that is likely to cost American lives for years to come.
To understand the reason for the additional strategic risk, one has to understand the nature of the successful American military operation against ISIS. Unlike American offensives during much of the Iraq War — when hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of American troops would conduct complex and costly urban military operations with minimal effective help from Iraqi allies — during the fight against ISIS, our allies have largely born the burden of ground combat. Yes, they’ve enjoyed the indispensable support of American artillery and air power, and small groups of American soldiers have rendered aid and engaged in direct combat as well, but our allies have been going house-to-house and have paid a terrible price. By some estimates, as many as 11,000 Kurds have lost their lives in the fight against ISIS — a staggering death toll borne by a relatively small population.
The result — from an American perspective — has been one of the most successful military operations in a generation. The ISIS caliphate, which once dominated a nation-state sized region covering much of northern Syria and northern Iraq, is now in ruins. ISIS isn’t entirely defeated, but it’s a shadow of its former strength. And the cost in American lives has been a small fraction of the cost incurred in even a single battle of the Iraq War. For example, America suffered almost 700 casualties (82 killed) during the Second Battle of Fallujah. The nation has suffered far fewer casualties during the entire fight against ISIS, stretching from June 2014 until the present day.
But if the allied bargain with America is that our local allies bleed and then we abandon them to death and military catastrophe when we weary of the alliance, who will ally with us again? Moreover, as we know from recent history, terrorists often thrive not just in chaos but especially in the power vacuums created by unwise American withdrawals. Thus, the Trump administration is creating the worst possible dynamic — it’s undercutting allies at the very same time that it’s creating conditions that may require us to ask for their help again.
Indeed, to understand the true magnitude of the betrayal, there are now multiple reports that the Trump administration — in an effort to de-escalate tensions between the Turks and the Kurds — had previously asked our Kurdish allies to dismantle defensive fortifications along the border, rendering them more vulnerable to Turkish invasion. Now our allies will have to reallocate forces, rebuild fortifications, and — in many cases — leave the field in the ongoing fight against ISIS remnants.
In a string of tweets, President Trump sought to justify his decision by declaring that he had been elected to extricate America from “ridiculous, endless wars,” but Trump’s withdrawal does not end the war. It grants our enemies a much-needed respite. ISIS has never ended its fight against America. It’s been weakened, and in some areas it has been routed, but it has not asked for peace. It does not seek peace.
By potentially further destabilizing northern Iraq, Trump not only puts our Kurdish allies at profound risk, he also creates conditions that could lead to a total loss of allied control over the tens of thousands of ISIS detainees held by the Kurds. In his statement, Trump announced that Turkey would be “responsible” for “all ISIS fighters captured in the area over the past two years.” This is a fantasy. The far more likely outcome is that ISIS fighters and ISIS operatives will assume increasing control over the relevant facilities, and there will be a likely loss of containment.
It is absolutely true that the United States faces a formidable challenge in Syria. ISIS has not been entirely defeated, there is a long-running simmering conflict between Turkey and Kurdish forces, and there is still no final peace settlement in the Syrian civil war. Resolving those challenges requires a combination of military resolve and deft diplomacy. There are no easy answers.
But Trump’s action represents the opposite of resolve. It represents an attempt to short-cut a difficult process with a precipitous, impulsive decision that will cost American credibility now and could well cost American lives later. He then compounded that impulsiveness with a bizarre tweet on Monday. Trump said, “[i]f Turkey “does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off-limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done it before!)”
Yet that’s not a policy change. It’s an act of face-saving bluster with no definable practical meaning.
In fact, Trump’s decision is so poor, so impulsive, that it’s created a rare moment of agreement in divided Washington. Republican Senator (and staunch Trump ally) Lindsey Graham has announced that he’s working with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen to “introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if they invade Syria and will call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces who assisted the U.S. in the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate.”
This is a start, but it’s only a start. Checking the Trump administration’s foolish impulsiveness will require real bipartisan resolve. How long can that last when Trump attacks his GOP critics? But wisdom must prevail. Americans are weary of the so-called “forever war.” If so, they should unite against a foolish move that will extend and worsen the very conflict they seek to end.