Washington, DC – US President Donald Trump‘s announcement on Sunday that the United States was withdrawing its troops from northeast Syria, clearing the way for military action by Turkey against the Kurds, has raised new concerns in Washington, DC, with analysts raising alarm over the US president’s “erratic” behaviour, and what it means for the US leader’s relationships at home and abroad.
“Trump’s actions have provoked the perfect storm of opposition. You have Republicans and Democrats, Europeans and Middle Easterners, people of all stripes calling out that we should not be allowing a slaughter of our Kurdish allies,” said Joe Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Funds, a global security foundation.
“This is a fiasco and possibly a catastrophe,” Cirincione told Al Jazeera. “We are now seeing the president’s behaviour become increasingly erratic and unpredictable with serious national security consequences.”
Trump appears to have made the decision late on Sunday after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many Republicans were surprised by the move, which effectively abandoned Kurdish fighters, who had been one of the US’s top allies in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) in Syria.
It is unclear to what extent Trump consulted US military leaders on the ground before ordering troops to withdraw from northern Syria as Turkey prepares for a possible military campaign in the area. ABC News, quoting a Pentagon spokesman, said reported that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley were involved in making the decision.
Following the White House announcement, Trump’s Republican allies in Congress, including the powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, quickly objected. The Pentagon issued a statement clarifying US forces do not endorse Turkey’s planned offensive. The European Union and the United Nations expressed fear of a humanitarian disaster or worse, ethnic cleansing.
Trump sought to assuage critics by threatening in a tweet to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy with economic sanctions if it goes beyond limits in Syria. But Lindsey Graham, a key Republican ally in the Senate, said he would push a vote in coming weeks on a resolution rebuking the president and calling for a reversal of the decision.
“In a nutshell, Trump threw the Kurds under the bus. Pressed to choose between the Turks and the Kurds, he sided with the former,” said Fawaz A Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
“Trump’s decision delivers a blow to US credibility worldwide. No one can trust the US to provide protection – neither the Kurds nor the Saudis, not even the Israelis,” Gerges told Al Jazeera. “The lesson learned is that Trump no longer has US allies’ back. Trump’s temperamental foreign policy undermines US deterrence posture worldwide.”
ISIL, which has been positioning itself for a comeback, is the biggest beneficiary of Trump’s decision, according to analysts, who said the armed group, which continues to carry out attacks in Syria and Iraq, will exploit the chaos caused by a conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. A Defense Department Inspector General report issued in August said US commanders in the region have seen a growth in ISIL numbers during recent months.
Republican support waning?
The president’s calls with foreign leaders have come under new scrutiny in Washington, DC, as Democrats in the House of Representatives ramp up their impeachment inquiry, which is centred on a call between Trump and the president of Ukraine.
Analysts say Trump’s decision on Syria may risk Republican support in Congress that he needs to survive the Democrat impeachment drive.
“His firewall in the Senate is 34 senators. He only has to lose one or two of them and he’s in real trouble,” Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow for national security at the conservative R Street Institute, told Al Jazeera.
If the Democratic-led House were to impeach Trump, the Senate would conduct a trial of the charges. Democrats would need to win at least 20 of 53 Republican senators to abandon the president to get the 67 votes that would be needed to remove Trump from the White House.
“For Republicans, this is a political battle that threatens a president who desperately needs Republican support in an impeachment battle,” Ciricione said. “Something like this has potential to crack the solid Republican support in the impeachment.”
“Somewhere, there is a line the Republicans will not cross. The question is, how long will the Republicans tie their political futures to Trump,” he said.
Among Republicans in Congress and many Democrats, one of the key concerns is the collapse of the US government’s national security decision-making process that has seen Pentagon and congressional leaders fall out of step with the president on Syria.
“Not only do you have no consensus, you don’t have a plan of any kind,” Ciricione said. “And then you complicate that with Trump’s erratic behaviour following a call with [Erdogan]. Foreign leaders have learned how to manipulate a narcissistic president.”
Before he was abruptly fired by Trump, former National Security Adviser John Bolton did much to dismantle the workings of the White House’s National Security Council, a working group designed to collect viewpoints from military, diplomatic and intelligence officials.
“It’s no surprise we don’t have the muscle, leverage or the will to challenge the players on the ground who have been willing to invest their resources, blood and treasure,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Jazeera.
“The future of Syria is in hands of the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians and the Assad regime and – to a degree no one wants to admit – any number” of armed groups, Miller said.
After Trump first announced he wanted to withdraw from Syria in December, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned in protest. Since then, Pentagon leaders have stalled acting on the directive. As a result, there is no consensus within the Trump administration on any post-conflict plan to withdraw US forces from Syria.
Meanwhile, analysts predict the Kurds will face a choice of waging a protracted and bloody war, or turning from Washington to Damascus with help from Russia which will want to show it can work with both the Kurds and Turkey.
“Trump’s decision to draw down US forces from Syria will be seen by local and regional actors as a further proof that Putin, not Trump, can be trusted to stand up and defend his allies,” Gerges said.
“Russia owns Syria now and coordinates with all the actors in the war-torn country,” he said.