The brewing conflict along the Syrian-Turkish border, which reentered the news cycle this week as Turkish President Recep Erdoğan threatened to invade Syria, is rooted in Obama-era policies that were always destined to erupt in chaos. The conflict in Syria is one of the geopolitical crises that the Trump administration has been both quite focused on and fairly sophisticated in addressing. None of this was apparent from the last few days of media coverage, however.
To put it bluntly, President Obama left Trump an intractable situation in northern Syria. Back in the mid-2010s, after President Obama dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team,” his administration scrambled to address the very real ISIS threat that had fomented in Syria. They had a range of allies to choose from in Syria, but they chose to empower the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European Union, United Kingdom, and Japan. The Obama administration helped to install the YPG along hundreds of miles of Syrian-Turkish border.
There are compelling arguments that suggest their decision was more broadly linked to the Obama administration’s wider pivot toward Iran and away from traditional American alliances, an assertion policy expert Michael Doran has posited here. Regardless of their motivations, the alliance created an impossible situation for Turkey. The Turks, justifiably or not, were never going to allow forces that they believed to be terrorist enablers to post up indefinitely across their border. Absent some alternative to address Turkey’s security concerns, military action was all but inevitable.
To complicate the situation even more greatly, the Obama administration’s decision entangled us in the fate of the Syrian Kurds as never before. We threw our weight vociferously behind their cause and vice versa. In the process, they took enormous losses in battles that we had declared to the international community were absolutely critical to our national security. With the Syrian Kurds, we had become allies. And that means an enormous amount.
This entire quagmire was emblematic of the untenable situation the Trump administration inherited from the Obama administration. Eventually, Turkish security concerns would have to be addressed, but those concerns stemmed unfortunately from Kurdish fighters who had fought with honor alongside our soldiers.
After several attempts to solve the problem, the Trump administration dispatched some of our most seasoned diplomats to the region to offer the Turks a choice between two options: they could cooperate with us, and in return, we would assist them in addressing their security concerns by setting up a “security mechanism”; or they could unilaterally plunge into Syria and target the Kurds under their own auspices, in which case they would be entirely on their own and bear the full brunt of the consequences. Those consequences would include, but not be limited to, a potential impasse with the Kurds, thousands of ISIS fighters released into the chaos, international disapprobation, and potentially U.S. sanctions.
For anyone paying attention, this bifurcation of options always had been at the center of the Trump administration’s policy in northern Syria. Indeed, just a few months ago, the Pentagon set up a Joint Center with Turkey to give them access to intelligence, so they could be assured we were holding up our end of the bargain on the cooperative security mechanism.
But, true to form, our firefighting media was not paying attention. Thus, when President Trump announced this past Sunday that he will pull American troops out of northern Syria — after a call with Erdogan that must have gone poorly, given that the call ended with a Turkish threat to finally invade Syria — a cast of characters on both the right and left expressed frustration and anger at the announcement, claiming we were abandoning the Kurds and gesturing toward prolonged stays in the region.
To be sure, such outrage wasn’t the universal position. Sen. Ted Cruz took to Twitter with a balanced response, supporting President Trump’s commitment to bring our soldiers home — we cannot “leave our troops in foreign theaters forever” — while respecting the fact that Kurdish troops fought honorably beside us in northern Syria and that honorable nations don’t abandon those who have shed blood beside us. He tweeted that it would be “disgraceful” to leave the Kurds at the mercy of invading Turkish forces. It would be.
But Cruz’s position is highly at odds with the left, the establishment right, and neoconservatives. Most pundits have wasted no time in constructing the narrative that Trump has again recklessly gone rogue and that his position is entirely unreasonable. The usual invectives have been hurled at the president. However, the only way to believe the insanity narrative is if you don’t understand our actual policy in Syria.
What seems to have unfolded over the past several days is that Erdogan — either out of calculation or simple anger — has decided to forgo the security mechanism and address the conflict in northern Syria independent of U.S. assistance. Such a choice, though seemingly less wise, had always been a possibility. And the U.S. Department of Defense soon reminded Erdogan of the consequences. DoD quickly issued a statement cutting off Turkey from the agreed upon “cooperation” (or security mechanism) that had been the White House’s preferable path to the possibility of Turkish “unilateral action.”
As matters currently stand, it is unclear what follows. Although Turkish forces are assembling at the border and signalling that invasion may be imminent, yesterday, we learned in an odd twist that Erodgan plans to visit Washington in mid-November. It is possible that Erdogan may want to mitigate tensions until his visit in the interest of actually having a meeting.
Regardless of the outcome, it is abundantly clear that media coverage of the crisis has significantly underplayed both that Trump inherited a terrible foreign policy quagmire and that the diplomats he has empowered are doing a great deal to make a frustrating situation less frustrating. The media has little motivation to report on the complexity of this situation with accuracy, for acknowledging what is actually transpiring in northern Syria wouldn’t fit the narrative of either a scandal-free Obama presidency or an incompetent Trump administration.