Although U.S. President Donald Trump dismisses criticism from political opponents easily, even reflexively, it doesn’t happen often that he has to do so from large numbers of Republicans. The decision to pull U.S. forces from northern Syria, however, has drawn public condemnation from many prominent members of Congress on the right, including Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. Meanwhile, in an Oct. 16 resolution, the House of Representatives, with the support of 129 Republicans—including all three of the Republican House leaders—condemned his Syria policy. The question is why now.
Whether to keep a small U.S. military contingent in northern Syria to prevent renewed Islamic State activity there and to protect the local Kurds from hostile Turkish forces was not just a question of whether Trump should be Trumpian. At first, the president argued that it was. He insisted that he’s against “endless wars” and that therefore American troops should come home. Fellow Republicans complain, however, that the withdrawal is undermining another key Trumpian idea: that the United States should push its partners abroad to do more to serve their common interests.
Demanding greater burden sharing has been central to Trump’s foreign policy. Past administrations gave the point no more than lip service, and many Republicans have cheered Trump for making it a matter of practical consequence. Now, as the historical jibe goes, they believe that leaving Kurdish allies at the mercy of hostile Turks is worse than a crime—it’s a blunder. It not only harms the Kurds, who have been allies of U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in recent years, but will also make it harder for U.S. officials to persuade other foreigners to make common cause with the United States. In other words, the withdrawal damages the president’s own signature policy on burden sharing.
One of this article’s authors was involved in many efforts to persuade foreigners to contribute to projects that the United States wanted done. These included anti-al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, counterterrorism work in the Philippines, missile defense efforts in Eastern Europe, and counternarcotics efforts in Colombia. In every case, Washington said U.S. officials would long remember with gratitude any help given and that there would be rewards for being America’s friend. U.S. officials will undoubtedly make this case in the future, but it will be a harder sell in light of what is now happening to the Kurds.
In both Iraq and Syria, Kurdish groups put themselves on the front lines against the Islamic State. In Iraq, Kurdish forces were a mainstay of the war against the terrorist group. In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led force that includes Arab fighters, was the main ground force for the anti-Islamic State coalition. The United States provided equipment, air support, intelligence, and other assistance, but Kurdish ground forces were instrumental in actually pushing the Islamic State out of the territory it controlled. They spared Americans from having to do much of the bloodiest work.
The Kurds also gave the U.S. government, in return for a fairly small investment, help hindering Iranian activities in the region and, potentially, a say in whatever political settlement might someday be reached for Syria. Syrian Kurds have also guarded thousands of Islamic State prisoners, preventing them from becoming a gold mine for the terrorist group as it recovers from the loss of its territory. Statements by Trump belittling the Kurds as allies have ignored the extent to which his own approach to burden sharing succeeded in Syria.
U.S. involvement with the Kurds has always risked trouble with Turkey. But the United States had been able to manage the tensions and work with both. And in fact, before the rise of the Islamic State, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan were in the process of building a more constructive relationship. The Kurds understand that their fate is not the United States’ only interest in the region, but Trump’s initial statements about the withdrawal of U.S. forces implied that it was not an interest at all. The president has since backtracked, saying that he will impose harsh economic sanctions if Turkey fails to treat the Kurds humanely. But this appears to be too little, too late to protect them—or to save Trump’s burden-sharing policy.
Two of the president’s key thoughts—ending “endless wars” and promoting burden sharing—are clashing with each other in Syria. Caught in the middle are not only the lives of foreign partners but important U.S. interests that even the most tough-minded, antisentimental, and “America First” Trump loyalist should want to protect.
Read in Foreign Policy