President Trump announced on October 22nd that Turkey’s government, under the leadership of President Erdogan, had agreed to stop its offensive against the Syrian Kurds and to make the ceasefire negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “permanent.” Although the president said that he would be lifting the economic sanctions that he had imposed on Turkey, he also issued a warning to Turkey. Crippling sanctions and tariffs would be re-imposed if Turkey does not honor its obligations, “including the protection of religious and ethnic minorities,” the president said.
President Trump credited the negotiated ceasefire for saving countless lives – “an outcome reached without spilling one drop of American blood. No injuries. Nobody shot, nobody killed.” U.S. troops are not retreating, as the president’s critics have charged. They are being deployed elsewhere in the region, with some remaining in Syria to protect its oil resources from falling into the wrong hands such as Iran or Islamic jihadists. President Trump said that in a conversation he had with General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish leader expressed gratitude for what the United States had accomplished in negotiating the ceasefire and saving Kurdish lives. “General Mazloum has assured me that ISIS is under very, very strict lock and key, and the detention facilities are being strongly maintained,” the president said. General Mazloum issued his own statement thanking President Trump “for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack.”
President Trump derided his critics as “the ones that got us into the Middle East mess but never had the vision or the courage to get us out. They just talk.” The president decided to pursue a different course than drastically expanding U.S. military presence to deter or beat back Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds. He used the economic leverage of sanctions and increased tariffs to back up a negotiated resolution, while maintaining U.S. troops in the region to be called upon if necessary. “Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” the president said, adding that “we have avoided another costly military intervention that could’ve led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences. Many thousands of people could’ve been killed.”
President Trump used his announcement to share his strategic thinking about U.S. military involvement in the perpetual wars that have plagued the Middle East. He wants to make fundamental changes to the conventional paradigm.
No more open-ended U.S. military commitments to fight other people’s wars over age-old grievances that have sucked the U.S. into seemingly bottomless quagmires. “How many Americans must die in the Middle East in the midst of these ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts?” the president asked. “After all of the precious blood and treasure America has poured into the deserts of the Middle East, I am committed to pursuing a different course — one that leads to victory for America.”
No more U.S. military interventions to bring about regime change. “Across the Middle East, we have seen anguish on a colossal scale,” the president said. “We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars. But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded — so many — the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.”
No more American lives needlessly sacrificed just to act as the world’s policeman. “The job of our military is not to police the world,” President Trump said. “Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn’t taken place.” When the United States does commit its troops to battle, “we must do so only when a vital national interest is at stake, and when we have a clear objective, a plan for victory, and a path out of conflict.” Such vital interests would include defeating ISIS and other jihadist terrorists who threaten the U.S. homeland, preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear arms capability, and protecting the security of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East.
President Trump showed his resolve when a vital national interest was at stake by removing the shackles placed by the Obama administration on the U.S. military in order to defeat ISIS as quickly as possible. “American forces defeated 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate during the last two years,” President Trump said, while calling on Turkey, Syria and others in the region to do their fair share “to ensure that ISIS does not regain any territory.”
Thirty-six years ago, President Ronald Reagan – no cut and run dove, to be sure – had to face the lethal consequences of U.S. military presence in a war-torn Middle East country without a clearly defined objective that served a vital U.S. national interest. Two hundred and forty-one U.S. marines deployed to Beirut, Lebanon in a “peacekeeping” role lost their lives as a result of a massive suicide bombing on October 23, 1983. President Reagan had to make a strategic decision whether to double down on the deployment of U.S. ground troops in Lebanon or alter military positioning in the region to keep U.S. military personnel safe without retreating from the Middle East altogether. President Reagan chose the latter course. The marines departed the Beirut International Airport where they were housed and moved to Sixth Fleet ships – a tactical ”redeployment,” as President Reagan described it. The United States would not maintain a long-term physical presence in the middle of the Lebanese battlefield to fight in its civil war, but would maintain a strong presence nearby to protect its core national interests. A senior State Department official at the time explained the rationale: “Lebanon is a country that has been at war for a thousand years. We did what we could to bring some order to the place, but it is obvious that nobody there wants order, and so we’re turning our attention now to wider issues of reviving the Middle East peace process and letting the Lebanese fight their own battles.”
America’s relationship with the Syrian Kurds needs to be examined in a similar fashion. The U.S. and the Kurds relied on each other to fight their common enemy, ISIS, which had threatened in 2014 to unleash mass slaughter upon the Kurdish population in northern Syria until the U.S. stepped in and provided military assistance. For five years, the Kurds provided the ground troops while the U.S. provided critical air and reconnaissance support. Both have an interest in seeing to it that ISIS does not regenerate itself into the threat that it once was. However, while the Kurds were fighting against ISIS, they were also establishing self-rule within the area of northeast Syria. They envisioned living securely within sort of a self-ruling U.S. protectorate, shielded from a Turkish attack so long as the U.S. maintained its military presence there. The New York Times described the developing conditions on the ground this way: “As the Islamic State retreated, the Kurdish fighters became, in effect, the government of roughly a quarter of Syria, including — to Mr. Erdogan’s fury — most of the Syrian border with Turkey. For several years, American troops kept order between its two allies, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, acting as de facto peacekeepers on the border.”
The Kurds would have loved to live under such U.S. protection for many years to come.
The question that President Trump had to face was how long the status quo should continue. Does the U.S. have either its own vital security interest at stake or an obligation to its Kurdish allies to act as a long-term protection force for the Kurds’ self-governing region within the sovereign territory of another country? Must the U.S. entangle itself in a regional face-off between the Syrian Kurds, who desire self-rule within an area adjoining Syria’s border with Turkey, and the determined resolve of the president of Turkey, a NATO ally, not to allow what he perceives to be a grave security threat to persist on his country’s border? Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said that President Trump’s decision “to withdraw less than 50 soldiers from the zone of attack was made after it was made very clear to us that President Erdogan made the decision to come across the border.” He added that the United States could “not jeopardize the lives” of American special operations troops in Syria and that the United States could not “start a fight with a NATO ally.”
One can certainly argue that President Trump’s precipitous decision to remove U.S. military protection of the Syrian Kurds from Turkish forces created the unintended consequences of fostering an ISIS resurgence and allowing Syrian and Russian forces to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal. However, the United States did not leave the Middle East, any more than President Reagan did when he withdrew the marines from the Beirut airport. U.S. troops are in the neighborhood and can be called upon quickly to strike ISIS wherever it rears its ugly head. Moreover, Russia, certainly no friend of ISIS, has now assumed the responsibility and has its own interest to crush any resurgence of the jihadist terrorist group in the area before it gets out of hand.
Contrary to conventional thinking, Iran may come out a loser, not a winner, as a result of Turkey’s establishment of a safety zone in northeast Syria with Russian backing, following President Trump’s withdrawal decision. Iran was unhappy with Turkey’s actions in Syria in the first place. If Turkey follows through on plans to resettle within the safety zone it has set up in northeastern Syria the millions of mostly Sunni Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, Iran will have a harder time filling empty spaces in Syria with its Shiite supporters. This will make Iran’s strategic ambition of establishing the Shiite Crescent, a land route from Iran through Iraq and then into Syria and Lebanon, more difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, the United States has moved troops at least temporarily to Iraq to keep the pressure on any ISIS remnants. The U.S. will now also have more flexibility to fortify its special forces base in southern Syria that has not only been used to fight ISIS but also to counter Iran’s efforts to expand its military influence within Syria.
President Trump was dealt a bad hand in Syria as a result of Barack Obama’s ineptitude. Obama failed to take ISIS seriously until it metastasized. He drew a red line in the sand over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, which he then disregarded (the opposite of what President Trump did when faced with the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons). And Obama committed U.S. military resources and prestige to regime change in Syria without any clear idea how to accomplish it or whether worse consequences would follow, such as happened in Libya. President Trump took the steps he believed to be necessary to protect American lives without giving up the fight against the two largest threats in the Middle East to U.S. and regional security – ISIS and Iran. History will judge the wisdom of his decision.