“Trump has betrayed the Syrian Kurds” — so goes a popular refrain regarding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the areas of northeast Syria held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The events that have followed — namely, a Turkish invasion of parts of SDF territory along the border and the deployment of Syrian government forces in some SDF areas — have been characterized as a strategic disaster for American interests, with some commentators even proclaiming the withdrawal as indicative of a U.S. imperial decline and U.S. disengagement from the Middle East.
In fact, much of this is overblown. For one thing, the U.S. still maintains extensive troop deployments elsewhere in the Middle East, and those are not being drawn down anytime soon. Insofar as many of the pundits, analysts, and policymakers condemning Trump consider the recent developments in Syria to be a disaster, they primarily have themselves to blame, however popular bashing Trump might be.
Indeed, these critics of Trump did not learn the relevant lessons from December 2018 when the president ordered preparations for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. They should have appreciated that Trump is ultimately the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces and that he had made his own preferences on Syria clear: namely, that after the military defeat of the Islamic State, U.S. forces should leave. As the president’s record on issues like climate change and the Iran nuclear deal illustrates, he has generally been forthright and sincere in trying to fulfill his policy promises. When he told his advisers that he wanted to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, he meant it. The message should have been clear: devise an orderly withdrawal plan.
But that is not what happened. Instead, efforts and attention were geared towards U.S. forces remaining indefinitely in Syria. The advocates for this “stay indefinitely” approach argued that the deployment as it existed was supposedly an example of a successful projection of U.S. leverage and influence with a relatively small number of troops. They claimed that U.S. presence was vital for political negotiations on Syria’s future and important for limiting Iranian influence and blocking its “land route” to the Mediterranean.
In reality, none of these assertions holds up but rather reflect dubious expansions of the original purpose of the U.S. mission in Syria: countering the Islamic State. At the same time, the “stay indefinitely” crowd tended to downplay the major problem regarding the U.S. partnership with the SDF: the issue of relations with Turkey, which considers (with some justification) the SDF to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for decades.
Regardless of what one thinks of Turkey’s approach towards the PKK, it is not a problem that can be treated as a minor irritant. Facts of geography mean that Turkey is located along the northern borders of the SDF’s territory. As such, Turkey could be the SDF’s main gateway to the outside world, rather than the small and limited capacity border crossing on the Tigris River that the SDF has maintained with the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Thus, for the interests of the SDF’s longterm economic prospects (among other things), some kind of détente or resolution of the conflict between the PKK and Turkey would have been necessary so that the region could have much more open borders and engagement with the outside world.
Unfortunately, though, policymakers and advisers did not take Turkey’s concerns and its threats of a military confrontation with the SDF seriously enough. Along with their desire to keep U.S. troops in Syria, many of them imagined that Turkey could somehow be appeased through half-baked measures: thus the previous attempts to deny SDF–PKK links, the failed schemes of joint U.S.–Turkish patrols in the Manbij area west of the Euphrates River, and then the joint northern border patrols and partial dismantling of SDF fortifications along the northern border with Turkey a little while before the recent Turkish incursion against the SDF.
Others argue that the U.S. simply needed to be adamant in saying no to a Turkish incursion and that the small U.S. troop presence could have deterred Turkey indefinitely. This view is implausible. A small foreign troop presence can function as a deterrent to another side’s attack, but it is not an absolute deterrent here. To understand why, consider events that occurred earlier this year on the other side of Syria. In the northwest of Syria (specifically the city of Idlib and its environs), Turkey set up multiple small military outposts in the insurgent-held areas ostensibly as part of enforcing a “deescalation” scheme in coordination with Russia. In practice, the goal has been to block any further Syrian government offensives on the northwest and prevent further refugee flows into Turkey.
While Russia has shown some understanding of Turkey’s concerns in this regard, it also wishes to assist the Syrian government in restoring its control over the area and will not tolerate the indefinite presence of designated “terrorist” groups harassing Syrian government and Russian positions. Russia thus gave Turkey time to clear a demilitarized buffer zone of the likes of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a designated “terrorist” group). When that did not materialize and the insurgent harassments of Syrian government and Russian positions continued, the Syrian government and Russia launched a military campaign that retook important areas in south Idlib and north Hama. The Turkish military outposts did not do anything to stop the offensive (indeed, they could not do so), and in effect the Syrian government and Russia worked around one of the outposts in north Hama. A ceasefire then followed, but it should be clear that it will not last if Turkey cannot crack down on the groups that are designated as “terrorist.”
That episode should also have been a lesson for U.S. policymakers. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly said he would launch an incursion against the SDF to the east of the Euphrates River (where U.S. forces in Syria have primarily been stationed), and in 2018 Turkey had carried through with its threats to destroy the SDF enclave in the Afrin area, where the U.S. had no presence. What would have stopped Turkey from finding ways to work around U.S. positions as part of its incursion against the SDF east of the Euphrates River and essentially forcing the small U.S. garrisons — confronted by much larger Turkish forces and their Syrian insurgent proxies — to get out of the way?
Thus, Trump’s indication to Erdoğan that he wished to leave Syria and would not oppose an incursion likely hastened the Turkish operations against the SDF. But it was not the decisive factor in determining whether or not those operations would have eventually occurred anyway. Had the U.S. wished to deter Turkey indefinitely, it would have had to deploy far more troops in northeast Syria. For comparison, the much more extensive Turkish military presence in the insurgent-held north Aleppo countryside between Afrin and Jarabulus functions as an effective deterrent against Russian and Syrian government military action so long as Turkey maintains that large presence.
Of course, the advocates of the “stay indefinitely” course did not dare to confront these realities and argue for a more extensive U.S. presence, knowing that such advocacy would be politically unacceptable. They preferred to argue that the small U.S. troop presence in northeast Syria as an example of a deployment that was strategically effective and inexpensive.
Ultimately, the debate about the U.S. role in Syria boils down to the question of how far the U.S. should invest troops and resources into a foreign deployment. Those who advocated an indefinite presence are delusional if they think the prior status quo was sustainable. If they had thought more carefully about the idea of making the SDF-held areas a U.S. protectorate that could function independently of the wider environment, they should have accepted that such a project would have required far more troops and money to be poured in.
In any case, they should still be asked why they did not come up with an exit plan but instead thought they could defy the president’s wishes. They are the ones far more deserving of the accusation of betrayal for making misleading commitments, promises, and reassurances to the SDF.