- President Donald Trump’s tendency to cosy up to authoritarians has backfired in a major way in Syria.
- Trump’s controversial relationships with autocratic leaders have rarely sparked immediate consequences.
- But his willingness to kowtow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to go after Kurdish forces has induced a political and humanitarian crisis.
- “The cost of allying with autocrats like Erdogan and Putin has never been clearer, especially when American troops are caught in the crossfire,” one expert on authoritarianism told Insider.
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President Donald Trump’s willingness to attach himself to authoritarians has been an unusual and controversial aspect of his presidency, but it’s rarely sparked significant consequences. This week, however, Trump’s cosy relationships with some of the world’s most repressive leaders are coming back to haunt him at a ferocious velocity in Syria.
Trump capitulated to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, abandoning Kurdish forces – who until recently were closely allied with the US in the fight against ISIS – to a potential slaughter by Turkey’s military.
Trump has often boasted about his good relationship with Erdogan, an autocratic ruler widely considered to be an enemy to democracy. The Trump administration’s announcement of the Syria withdrawal, which paved the way for Turkey’s military to invade, came after a phone call between Trump and Erdogan on October 6.
The US government has allied itself with dubious rulers over the years, but perhaps never so brazenly and frequently as Trump. In some cases, Trump has even sided with such leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, over his own intelligence services. But he’s largely been able avoid sudden repercussions from these actions – until now.
When Trump agreed to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for nuclear talks, many experts on the region warned that he was getting played and Kim could never be trusted. Trump has met with Kim three times so far, and North Korea has still not denuclearized as it continues aggressive behaviour and missile tests that make US allies in the region like Japan and South Korea nervous.
Yet, the consequences of the bizarre relationship between Trump and Kim have played out slowly and in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious to the casual onlooker.
Comparatively, the backlash to his Syria retreat and abandonment of Kurdish forces who served as the battering ram in the US-led campaign against ISIS has been exceptionally swift and widespread.
As the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal put it on Monday: “What a fiasco. Foreign-policy blunders often take months or years to reveal their damaging consequences, but the harm from President Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US forces from northern Syria is playing out almost in real time.”
Trump has received rare criticism from congressional Republicans over the move, including from lawmakers who typically sing his praises like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” Graham tweeted last Wednesday. “This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS.”
The Syria crisis is rapidly unfolding before the eyes of the world
Beyond the bipartisan outcry on Capitol Hill, the real-world consequences have also been palpable and rapid:
- Turkey invaded Syria within 3 days of Trump announcing the withdrawal of US troops from the northeast portion of the country.
- Roughly 160,000 people have been displaced in less than a week since the incursion began.
- There have been reports of atrocities and potential war crimes committed against the Kurds by Turkish-backed Syrian Arab forces.
- US troops near Kobani were fired on by Turkish artillery. Though no one was hurt, some reports suggest this was deliberate and meant to push the US out.
- As US troops move out, Russia is moving in both physically and politically. The Kurds are now looking to US adversaries – Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – for protection against the Turkish assault.
- ISIS prisoners escaped a camp in northern Syria over the weekend, and since the Turkish invasion began ISIS has claimed responsibility for at least two attacks.
- Trump on Monday announced he’s hitting Turkey with sanctions over the invasion, offering a response that many US lawmakers view as an impotent reaction to a crisis of the president’s own making.
- The sanctions also further complicate the already convoluted relationship between the US and Turkey, who are technically allies as fellow NATO members.
In short, Trump has handed a major geopolitical victory to Putin, and his decision has catalyzed an escalating humanitarian crisis. And virtually every aspect of the unfolding calamity was predicted. Trump was warned about the various scenarios currently playing out on the global stage, but decided to move forward regardless. The president’s obstinate practice of going with his gut over the counsel of advisers has backfired spectacularly.
‘The cost of allying with autocrats like Erdogan and Putin has never been clearer’
The unfolding situation in Syria also occurs as Trump faces an impeachment inquiry linked to him urging the president of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who could potentially be his Democratic opponent in 2020.
The escalating Ukraine scandal poses an existential threat to Trump’s presidency, and he’s added to his already overflowing plate by inducing a crisis in Syria in concert with it.
The president has shown no remorse about his request of Ukraine, and repeated it on the White House lawn earlier this month as he simultaneously urged another authoritarian leader, Chinese President Xi Jinping, to investigate Biden. Xi is among the long list of autocratic rulers Trump has developed amicable relations with.
“Trump’s handling of the Syrian crisis, coming on top of more revelations of his appeal to foreign governments to interfere in American politics for his benefit, is showing Americans the real face of his rule,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University who specialises in authoritarianism and fascism, told Insider.
Ben-Ghiat added: “The cost of allying with autocrats like Erdogan and Putin has never been clearer, especially when American troops are caught in the crossfire.”
Beyond the immediate consequences, Trump’s Syria retreat has sent a dangerous message to US allies and could make other nations and groups wary of partnering with America in the future. The Kurds have characterised Trump’s decision as a “stab in the back,” and US commandos who’ve served with them have said they’re ashamed by the move.
“They trusted us and we broke that trust,” one Army officer told The New York Times. “It’s a stain on the American conscience.”
- Read more:
- Trump’s latest conspiracy theory is that the Kurds released ISIS prisoners to pull the US back into Syria
- Trump suggested the Kurds were releasing ISIS prisoners, but US officials say Turkish-backed forces are actually doing this
- The US shared intelligence with Turkey that may have helped it target the Kurds in Syria
- Trump defends abandoning the Kurds by saying they didn’t help the US in WWII
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