OP-ED: How Erdogan backed Trump into a corner on Syria

Eli Lake
Bloomberg News (TNS)
In this April 4, 2018 photo, a U.S. soldier waves as he sits on an armored vehicle, at a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij town, north Syria. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria has rattled Washington's Kurdish allies, who are its most reliable partner in Syria and among the most effective ground forces battling the Islamic State group. Kurds in northern Syria said commanders and fighters met into the night, discussing their response to the surprise announcement Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

President Donald Trump, according to his Twitter feed, has made a deliberate policy decision to cut America’s losses and withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. “The endless and ridiculous wars are ENDING!” he tweeted Monday. “We will be focused on the big picture, knowing we can always go back & BLAST!”

Like a lot of the president’s tweets, that’s not entirely accurate. The new U.S. posture in northeastern Syria is a response to the obduracy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. officials tell me, who was unmoved by the pleading and pressure of U.S. diplomats and generals to forgo a planned invasion.

Some background: Last summer, U.S., Turkish and Kurdish diplomats ironed out a safe-zone agreement between Kurdish forces and Turkey. Erdogan, however, was determined to break that agreement by sending his army into Syria. Trump decided that he would not have U.S. forces stand in the way and risk a military confrontation with a NATO ally.

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This is reflected in the White House statement from Sunday evening. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” it says. Note those final three words. A senior administration official tells me that there has been no order to withdraw the 1,000 or so U.S. troops left in Syria; Sunday’s announcement amounts to a tactical retreat from just the areas where the Turks were preparing to invade.

The second part of Sunday’s statement announced that the U.S. would not be detaining the Islamic State fighters captured by allied Kurdish militias. Instead, the White House said, “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years.” The president reemphasized this point in a tweet on Monday, saying Turkish officials “must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and their families.”

Currently, those Kurdish militias are primarily responsible for those detained Islamic State fighters. So if Erdogan was under the impression that he could turn his military against the Kurds and then receive U.S. assistance to detain those Islamic State fighters — well, Trump and the White House have made it clear that he would be on his own in this regard.

This is a high-stakes gamble. It’s in the U.S. interest to make sure Islamic State terrorists never return to the battlefield. The White House message may well be meant for Erdogan, warning him against a large-scale campaign against the Kurdish positions. Turkey lacks the resources and capabilities to detain those fighters.

One problem with all this, of course, is Trump himself — specifically, the way he has decided to portray the crisis in northern Syria as part of his campaign to end “endless wars.” In January, after Trump backtracked from an earlier promise to withdraw from Syria, he threatened Turkey with “economic devastation” if Erdogan attacked America’s Kurdish allies. This time around, Trump has announced on Twitter that he “will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it “does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”

Again, however, there is a difference between threats on Twitter and actual consequences in real life. For the latter, it may be up to Congress. On Monday, Senator Lindsey Graham announced he was working with his colleagues to introduce new sanctions against Turkey if it followed through with an invasion. He tweeted that he hopes and expects that the bill will receive veto-proof majorities.

Graham’s response is revealing. One of Trump’s staunchest allies now concedes that he doesn’t expect the president to deter a NATO ally from reaping the whirlwind in Syria. If Trump were smart, he’d welcome Graham’s intervention. A U.S. retreat and a Turkish incursion will not end the war in Syria — they will prolong it.

— Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.