For the last 2½ years of haphazard foreign policy under President Trump, the refrain of reassurance was that at least the unconventional leader had not been faced with a major international crisis.
Now, Trump faces one of his own making — something he started and might not be able to stop.
Until now, the consequences of Trump’s foreign policy decisions usually unfolded in slow motion, such as the withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and the subjugation of Palestinians in the Mideast peace process.
By contrast, his rash decision to withdraw the last U.S. troops in northeastern Syria has been the most immediately consequential — and lethal — of his presidency.
It quickly led to the slaughter of Syrian Kurds — U.S. allies who helped defeat Islamic State militants — and a brutal Turkish invasion across Syria’s border that put retreating U.S. troops at risk and still threatens to spiral into a broader conflict, despite Trump’s frantic attempts now to contain it.
It has been a gift for Russia, which stepped into the vacuum left by the United States, and to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a U.S. foe who immediately agreed to a Russian-brokered deal with the Kurds to help them confront Turkish incursions.
The escape of Islamic State militants in the ensuing chaos is raising fears that the terrorist group that Trump often boasts of defeating could come roaring back to life.
And U.S. allies in the region such as Israel, which reportedly received no warning of Trump’s plans, now must quickly adjust to the shifting dynamics within its longtime enemy Syria while wondering: If Trump can so easily betray the Kurds, might he do the same to Israel?
Critics say Trump ignored all the warnings — as well as counsel from advisors — about how vulnerable the Syrian Kurds were and of the inevitably dire fallout.
The debacle with Syria encapsulates many of the characteristics that have propelled Trump as a politician but are potentially hazardous for a world leader: impetuousness; a contempt for expertise, especially that of the State Department’s career foreign-service officers; a focus on narrow, short-term, transactional interests; an absolute trust in his own instincts; and a penchant to flip-flop and finger-point.
“This has been building for 2½ years, and eventually the chickens come home to roost,” said William Burns, former deputy secretary of State and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an interview.
“The only surprise is that it took this long to have such a serious crisis,” he added.
Trump, in pursuing what he calls an “America first” policy in the world, has prided himself on shaking up the status quo. Now he is witnessing what can go so wrong in such a practice.
“This has been really illustrative, in the most graphic way we have seen, of the dangers of a president going with his gut,” said Hal Brands, a former Pentagon analyst now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Trump “junked the balancing act” that had sustained U.S. operations in Syria, while angering both Turkey and its enemy, the Syrian Kurds, Brands said. “It’s the worst of both worlds, a scenario one would imagine is not easy to achieve.”
Trump last week announced he was withdrawing the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops from small bases in northeastern Syria, where for the last several years they trained, equipped and fought alongside Syrian Kurdish militias to take back territory from Islamic State and stave off forces of Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.
His decision, Trump said, came after a single phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, who has long sought to wipe out Syrian Kurds he considers terrorists. Erdogan appeared to take Trump’s mild admonitions to tread carefully as a green light to invade northern Syria — where he would align with Russia.
Within 72 hours, a reported 200 Kurds had been killed, terrified refugees were fleeing once again to avoid Turkish bombardment, and Islamic State detainees were reportedly escaping by the hundreds. Trump’s action has triggered a cascade of presumably unintended consequences that will roil the Middle East and beyond for years.
Even fellow Republicans were taken aback. “Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of” Islamic State, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell warned that the withdrawal, and the betrayal of the Kurds, would create “a broader power vacuum in Syria that will be exploited by Iran and Russia, a catastrophic outcome for the United States’ strategic interests.”
Indeed, the U.S. exit was celebrated by Moscow and Tehran — along with Assad, who Washington once vowed must be deposed but now, thanks to Russia and Iran, has all but won an 8-year-long Syrian civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
In addition to backing Assad, Russia struck a bargain with Erdogan, and now believes its goal has been achieved: driving the United States out of Syria and securing its expansive footprint in the region, regaining status as a major player in the Middle East. Russia rushed in to fill the void left by the U.S., moving in some cases into abandoned U.S. facilities, according to reports from the region. Iran, too, was eager to see the Americans out of Syria.