‘After defeating 100 per cent of the ISIS Caliphate, I largely moved our troops out of Syria,’ tweeted President Donald Trump this week. ‘Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land. I said to my Generals, why should we be fighting for Syria and Assad to protect the land of our enemy? Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great; we are 7,000 miles away!’
It was always a risk electing a New York property tycoon and game show host to the White House and after three years of surprisingly sensible foreign policy — behind the buffoonery and bluster — that risk has catastrophically materialised.
Trump’s decision late last year to rapidly drawdown US troops in Syria has been destabilising the region all year. He was warned of the consequences by his former defense secretary General James Mattis (who resigned over the policy), by the Pentagon inspector general in August and by a bipartisan congressional report in September. He was told the Syrian civil war was not over, Isis was regrouping and without US troops on the grounds, it was a major threat. But despite all the warnings, Trump pulled his troops out of northern Syria, greenlighting a Turkish invasion. Predictably, it triggered a humanitarian crisis with thousands fleeing indiscriminate bombing by the Turkish army and the atrocities of the proxies, jihadi militias.
Trump’s short-sighted, stupid, morally bankrupt decision has provoked an outcry around the world and may also be disastrous at home. That’s because the US hadn’t defeated ‘100 per cent of the ISIS Caliphate,’ as Trump gloated. On the contrary, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were guarding nearly 11,000 Isis operatives in around thirty makeshift prisons and camps. While the Kurds are fleeing Turkish slaughter, Isis operatives are using the chaos to escape or being liberated by Turkish-allied militias. This will have potentially catastrophic consequences around the world. As far afield as China, the Turkish invasion is being condemned. The Chinese fear that radicalised Uighurs may return to China to carry out terrorist attacks. The EU and Australia see the same threat and the US is not immune to this danger either.
As all Republican candidates noted in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, the biggest mistake of the Obama-administration was to allow US forces to be withdrawn prematurely in Iraq, which benefited the Iranian-backed Shia government in Iraq and created such a backlash amongst Sunnis that Islamic State emerged, phoenix-like from the ashes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and metastasised in the rubble of the Syrian civil war into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Trump has repeated that mistake in such a comprehensively haphazard manner that it has compounded the damage. Already in the region controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, five Isis prisoners have escaped in Qamishli, almost 700 Isis families have escaped from a camp run by the SDF and a car bomb detonated near the Ghuwairan prison in Hasaka is likely to be a prelude to an offensive to free thousands of Isis prisoners. The SDF, which has 70,000 soldiers, lost 11,000 combattants in the fight to defeat Isis and secure an autonomous region which covers one third of Syria and provides peace, security and basic government services for Arabs, Kurds and Syriac Christians. As the SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi wrote in Foreign Policy this week, the area is a safe haven for people who survived genocides and ethnic cleansing committed by Turkey against the Kurds, Syriacs, Assyrians and Armenians during the last two centuries. This extraordinary achievement — the creation of a pluralistic region which respected the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities — had held together despite the threat of a US drawdown, with only 1,000 US soldiers, who did not have to fight in frontline positions but simply acted as guarantors. As long as the US troops backed the SDF, there was no challenge from the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians or the Syrian forces loyal to Assad.
All this is now being thrown back into the chaos and bloodshed of civil war. Well may Trump jeer about Napoleon —there is nobody else to defend the Kurds. So, who benefits? Isis, which the Pentagon estimated had already regrouped 18,000 adherents, and is gaining strength by the day. Iran, the power behind the Assad government, which profits from Trump’s premature withdrawal, just as it did when Obama left Iraq too soon. It is consolidating its stranglehold on Syria and extending its territorial reach. Russia is also a winner. It gains influence and prestige, will likely broker the standoff between Turkey and Assad’s Syrian forces and will be seen in the region as a more reliable partner than the fickle and feckless Trump. Who loses? Almost everyone else; the Kurds, the people living under their benevolent rule, the Saudis, their Sunni allies, the Israelis, the US, the EU and China.
Facing a backlash even amongst staunch supporters, Trump vainly tried to pretend that the nightmare he’d created was somebody else’s fault, tweeting that ‘Turkey and the Kurds must not let (ISIS fighters) escape.’ Yet everyone knows Turkey’s proxies work with Isis and Trump’s suggestion that the Kurds would deliberately release Isis prisoners after 11,000 Kurdish combatants died defeating the Caliphate is as offensive as it is dumb. Trump also blamed the Europeans tweeting, ‘Europe should have taken (ISIS fighters) back after numerous requests. They should do it now.’ It’s all very well to say that but nobody wants to bring home jihadists. A better option would have been to get Europeans, the Chinese and the Australian government to contribute financially to building proper prisons in northern Syria and strengthening the Kurdish-controlled region. Too late for that.
Turkey has treated US and EU threats of sanctions with scorn, calling them ‘a joke’ and said it won’t call a ceasefire until it has ethnically-cleansed the region of Kurds. Even if Vice President Pence can save the situation, it seems unlikely he can save his president’s reputation. Trump’s boorish ignorance in saying there was nothing wrong with abandoning the Kurds because they didn’t fight in D-Day is not like ‘trolling’ Greta Thunberg. As retired US General John Allen said, this time Trump has blood on his hands; and for the record, thousands of Kurds fought with the Allies in the British Iraq Levies against the Axis powers in the Second World War. It’s really very simple. As Nikki Haley, Trump’s brilliant former ambassador to the UN, tweeted this week, ‘We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back.’ Haley has been talked about as a presidential candidate in 2024. Perhaps it’s time to look for a return of Haley’s comet in 2020.
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