In Move From ‘Endless Wars,’ Trump Stokes Mideast Uncertainty

By : Vivian Salama

Outlet: The Wall Street Journal

Oct. 9, 2019

Turkey’s military offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria opens an uncertain new chapter in Washington’s Middle East policy as President Trump willingly cedes influence to Ankara and other regional players.

In clearing the way for Turkey to attack Kurdish fighters who were directly armed by the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State, Mr. Trump shifted the U.S. approach to the region by setting aside commitments by American officials who previously assured the fighters the U.S. wouldn’t abandon them.

The move holds potential implications for other U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. military said it has suspended joint operations with Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State extremists because of the Turkish assault. And Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria, if emboldened by the U.S. pullback, stand to pose a heightened risk to Israel, which has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against them.

Mr. Trump wrote Monday on Twitter that the U.S. isn’t abandoning the Kurds. On Wednesday, the president in a statement criticized Turkey’s military assault, but didn’t mention the Kurdish forces under attack.

“Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment,” Mr. Trump said in a statement Wednesday. Later that day, he told reporters, “The worst mistake the United States has ever made, in my opinion, is going in to the Middle East. It’s a quagmire.”

A month earlier, he approved the deployment of 200 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia following an attack on its oil facilities that was widely blamed on Iran. Mr. Trump also said then that he wouldn’t protect Saudi Arabia, which in the past has enjoyed a strong military alliance with the U.S., if a conflict were to occur.

His stance on Syria has drawn widespread denunciation from some of his strongest supporters in Congress, from former military commanders who oversaw the fight against Islamic State and diplomats who worry about America’s ability to find partners the next time major global crises arise. European allies also voiced concern.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) said Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria was having “sickening and predictable consequences.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) was one of the few lawmakers to defend Mr. Trump’s move away from “endless wars.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) issued an outline for legislation imposing sanctions on Turkey, and plan to present it to colleagues next week.

For Mr. Trump, it is his third move to disengage from Syria. In March 2018, he froze Syrian recovery funds and called for a withdrawal. In December 2018, he ordered a U.S. pullout, prompting the resignation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

In both instances, U.S. officials and allies cited reasons for keeping forces in place, and U.S. troops remained.

“What’s so damaging about all this is all the yoyo-ing back and forth that’s really taken a toll on all of the actors in the region,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a Middle East adviser at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “They just don’t know what side of the bed the president is going to wake up on, and what he’s going to say.”

Mr. Trump has defined a limited form of partnership with the Kurdish forces. Once Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate was all but destroyed, Mr. Trump began looking to withdraw U.S. forces, without publicly addressing the Kurdish forces’ attempts to advance their political goals for autonomy in Syria.

After his decision was criticized, Mr. Trump said he would inflict devastation on Turkey’s economy if Ankara injured U.S. personnel. However, the subject of possible sanctions against Turkey wasn’t part of White House discussions this weekend before Mr. Trump’s Sunday night announcement that the U.S. was stepping aside for the Turkish incursion, according to a senior administration official.

The official added that Mr. Trump prefers to avoid aggravating Ankara if doing so guarantees Turkey’s cooperation. In those discussions, Mr. Trump listened to advisers who warned of potentially adverse repercussions of a pullback. While he took those arguments into consideration, in the end, “he’s had enough,” the official said.

The official acknowledged the likelihood that the decision will strain relations with the Kurds, as well as coalition partners in Europe and elsewhere. “He knows it,” this person said of the president. “They’re just not his priority.”

Some U.S. officials said the Turkish operations may have been coordinated with Russia, in part with the aim of getting the U.S. out of Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call Wednesday not to damage overall efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, according to the Kremlin.

An immediate U.S. concern is how the Turkish campaign will affect efforts to contain the threat from Islamic State and prevent the group from rebuilding. In August, a Pentagon report warned that Islamic State was regaining strength.

Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria currently hold about 12,000 Islamic State fighters—including 2,000 from other parts of the world—in detention centers. Mr. Trump has been unable to persuade allies in Europe to take back fighters from their countries, creating an unresolved problem for Kurds and the U.S.

Kurdish leaders said they were redirecting fighters from guarding the Islamic State detention centers toward fighting Turkey, creating concerns that the extremist fighters could try to escape.

Mr. Trump on Wednesday sought to shift responsibility for the fighters to Turkey, even though Ankara has no plans to seize parts of Syria where many of the Islamic State detainees are held.