President Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw American forces from Syria is the most shocking foreign policy decision yet. Other moves like breaking the Iran nuclear deal may have been equal in scale and significance. But at least for other incidents there was a somewhat gradual buildup.
The Syria decision was different. While there was certainly some signaling from the president that he wanted troops out of the country, the pullout was against the advice of every one of his foreign policy aids and, reportedly, every general involved in the operation.
It was also sudden. Just a few weeks ago, the task of coordinating with NATO ally Turkey on joint operations in northern Syria seemed to be an active project. Now Trump has given a thirty-day deadline for all U.S. troops to be out of the country.
The are several reasons why a withdrawal from Syria at this time would be little short of a disaster. From supporting the Kurds, to countering Iran, to simply maintaining reliability for our allies, America has serious interests in Syria. Saying that picking up and leaving is irresponsible doesn’t quite cut it. The decision makes no strategic sense and simply wrecks the trajectory of many foreign policy objectives.
With these facts in mind, there’s a legitimate question to be posed regarding the administration’s decision: Was the president in some way coerced into the Syria pullout?
This possibility is being taken seriously by not just a few knowledgeable observers. One voice on this issue to make rounds on the media circuit has been that of Army general and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark. “There doesn’t seem to be any strategic rationale for the decision. And if there’s no strategic rationale for the decision then you have to ask, why was the decision made?” Clark told interviewers that “people around the world are asking this and some of our friends and our allies in the Middle East are asking, did Erdogan blackmail the president? Was there a payoff or something? Why would a guy make a decision like this? Because all the recommendations were against it.”
This theory of “blackmail” (which under other circumstances may have been considered conspiracy mongering) has been bolstered by the clear connection between Trump’s phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost two weeks ago, and his decision on Syria. According to an unnamed administration source, Erdogan took the conversation as an opportunity to lay out his case for the U.S. leaving Syria. Erdogan pointed to the near collapse of ISIS, saying that it was no longer necessary for America to continue fighting. When Trump asked if Turkey was able to “clear ISIS from [the] area,” Erdogan allegedly responded that “as your friend, I give you my word in this.” Trump himself pretty much substantiated these reports when, following a second call with Erdogan, he recently tweeted:
I just had a long and productive call with President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
But in addition to Erdogan just making a really good argument for a U.S. withdrawal, could the Turkish president have applied any other forms of pressure?
One possibility is that the Kurdish issue was largely at the basis of the American-Turkish arrangement on Syria. This theory would turn the claim of “the U.S. abandoning the Kurds” on its head. Far from betraying their Kurdish allies, the administration obtained a promise from Turkey to lay off on Kurdish militias in northern Syria. This speculation is backed by the fact that Erdogan announced shortly after his phone conversation that Turkey was “delaying” its planned operation in Syria against the Kurds.
In his two-page resignation letter, Mattis noted America’s key role in countering Russia, China, and other bad actors. Mattis also highlighted the importance of NATO, an alliance President Trump has lambasted on numerous occasions, even as Mattis worked quietly to reassure America’s European allies. In Mattis’s eyes, Trump has persistently gone against both of these principles. Erdogan said that it was his “phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials” that led to this decision.
The problem with this theory is that Erdogan did not commit to a permanent ceasefire with his decades-old Kurdish enemies, only to “wait a little longer” before executing the planned operation.
Another possibility is that Erdogan got aggressive with Trump, warning him that Turkey’s military operations in Syria would inevitably lead to a clash between their two countries. Indeed, a conflict between American and Turkish forces in Syria—or any other of the numerous actors in the country—has been a major concern throughout the conflict. Such incidents have occurred in the past, such as the Syrian downing of a Russian warplane in September and the battle between American special forces and Russian mercenaries back in May. According to some sources, Erdogan bluntly informed Trump that Turkish forces were coming, and that American troops should “get out of the way.” Trump decided to remove American personnel from Syria in order to avoid an inevitable confrontation.
But this hypothesis as well is far from convincing. Would Erdogan have really threatened the president of the United States point-blank? Would Trump have really just capitulated?
Trump’s motivations aside, we are already beginning to see the fallout from the most peculiar foreign policy directive. Allies have begun to seriously question America’s reliability—that is, more than they have until this point due to Trump’s erratic tendencies. Perhaps the most significant blow thus far has been James Mattis’s resignation from the Pentagon.
But this is just the beginning. Let there be no doubt: The Syria pullout will continue to have serious repercussions, from granting Iran maneuvering room, forcing Israel to increase operations in the country, to perhaps even the re-emergence of a powerful Islamic State.