Declaring his abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops in northern Syria “strategically brilliant,” President Donald Trump Wednesday scrambled to contain the damage from what outraged Republicans and Democrats said was an expanding litany of losses for American national security interests in the region.
Trump welcomed Russia’s rapid takeover of American positions in the region. He said that the Kurds, long Washington’s ally against ISIS, were “no angels” and that some were in fact worse terrorists than ISIS itself. And he described mounting violence that has killed scores of civilians and has included multiple reports of war crimes, as a fight over sand that didn’t concern the U.S.
It was a dizzying series of statements by the President that contradicted policies touted by Trump’s own administration as recently as two weeks ago. The result, said worried foreign policy experts, was not just a short term danger of a resurgent ISIS and the human cost as foreign forces swept through the power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, but a larger shift in power in the region. “The world sees a U.S. President with no plan or understanding of the lasting and severe consequences of both his actions and inactions,” said Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. Defense Secretary and Republican Senator from Nebraska.
Trump’s sharp break with his own recent policies reflected how rapidly and unfavorably events in Northern Syria have unfolded in the wake of his Oct. 6 phone call with Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Trump said it was “a good thing” that Russian forces had begun supporting the Kurds. On Tuesday, Russians were already sleeping in bunks at bases that American troops had spent years building and provisioning only to abandon them in haste just hours earlier. Trump’s former counter-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk wrote on Twitter that U.S. forces were “executing [an] emergency ‘break glass’ evacuation procedure reserved for an extreme worst-case scenario.” The result, says Hagel is a big win for Russian president Vladimir Putin. “Russia comes out the big winner in the Middle East,” Hagel said. “Putin now is the go-to guy in the Middle East. Assad will do what Putin wants.”
Trump likewise downplayed his abandonment of the Kurds, who had fought ISIS alongside U.S. troops since 2015. Following the U.S. retreat, the Kurds switched military allegiances for their own survival, aligning themselves this week with Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump said, “Plus, they know how to fight. And, by the way, they’re no angels.”
Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham were particularly vocal in criticizing Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. “I worry we will not have allies in the future against radical Islam, ISIS will reemerge, & Iran’s rise in Syria will become a nightmare for Israel,” Graham tweeted, “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making.” Although ISIS is no longer in control of any major city in Iraq or Syria, the fighting is not over. The U.S. had been relying on the Kurds to destroy remaining underground ISIS cells and to guard more than 30 detention facilities that hold about 11,000 ISIS detainees spread across northern Syria.
Trump also dismissed reports of mounting violence, which the U.N. said has displaced 130,000 people and killed scores of others. “It’s a problem we have very nicely under control,” Trump told reporters. “It’s not our problem,” Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there… There’s a lot of sand they can play with.”
Regardless of how Trump describes the developments, he and his aides spent much of Wednesday scrambling to contain the damage.
Trump sent Erdogan a remarkably undiplomatic letter, first reported by Fox Business, cajoling and threatening the Turkish president. Trump wrote, “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are scheduled to travel to Ankara in search of a ceasefire in coming days. But Erdogan has already publicly dismissed the idea. By unleashing chaos and then declaring the U.S. will play no role in containing it, says Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon intelligence official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Trump has left Erdogan “little to gain from backing down from an operation that is extremely popular in Turkey.” If Erdogan halts now, Cordesman says, there “is no clear prospect of the U.S. doing anything to actually bring stability back to the Kurdish parts of Syria.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats joined in a desperate effort to constrain Turkey. The House delivered a rare bipartisan condemnation of the decision to abandon the Kurds with a 354-60 vote. The measure, which is largely symbolic, calls on Turkey to immediately end the military assault in northern Syria. “At President Trump’s hands, American leadership has been laid low,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who introduced the measure and serves as Foreign Affairs Committee chairman.
Trump held a contentious meeting with leaders from both parties in Congress at the White House, during which he argued he was ensuring American security through the withdrawal. Trump told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that fewer that 100 ISIS fighters had escaped, and claimed they were the least dangerous of those who had been detained, according to a Democratic source familiar with the meeting.
Schumer asked Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who was present at the meeting, whether the escapees were in fact not dangerous, and Esper said he could not confirm that, according to the Democratic source. When Trump said his plan was to keep Americans safe, Pelosi retorted that wasn’t a plan, it was a goal, according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with the meeting. Trump later called Pelosi a “third-grade politician” according to the source, at which point Pelosi and other Democrats left.
Erdogan has dismissed the United States’ calls for a ceasefire and instead advanced deeper into Syria. Turkey, a NATO member, has long wanted to launch a military offensive against the Kurdish militias in Syria because they consider them terrorists. The U.S. had for months promised the Kurds ongoing U.S. support, but Trump backed down when Erdogan threatened invasion during the Oct. 6 call.
As for Trump, he dismissed the fallout of his decision to withdraw the troops. “We’re 7,000 miles away,” Trump said Wednesday, “I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that’s what I’m doing.” To the regional powers scrambling to take advantage of the hasty American retreat, he added: “I wish them all a lot of luck.”
On Wednesday, after U.S. forces left a military base they had established at a cement facility in Northern Syria, two F-15 fighter jets hit the base with an airstrike to obliterate an ammunition cache and to “reduce the facility’s military usefulness.”
–with reporting by Alana Abramson and Tessa Berenson