- - Sunday, January 20, 2019

President Trump’s surprise announcement that the United States was pulling all its troops out of Syria caught everyone by surprise. He quickly backed off of an immediate withdrawal — or seemed to — and then the Pentagon announced that the withdrawal was underway.

Or not. Both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton spent a week visiting our Middle Eastern allies (with one notable exception) to assure them that we weren’t going to leave unless certain conditions were met.

The principal condition was that the Kurdish forces would not be abandoned to the murderous intentions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan refused to meet with Mr. Bolton during his swing through the Middle East.

Publicly, the steadiest hands in these debates are Messrs. Pompeo and Bolton. But their voices only translate what Mr. Trump’s policies really are. Such was the case on Jan. 10 when Mr. Pompeo gave what was, so far, the best foreign policy speech of the Trump era.

Addressing an audience at American University in Cairo, which included Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Mr. Pompeo made it clear that the mistakes made in former President Obama’s Middle East policies were rejected by Mr. Trump.

Mr. Pompeo recited three mistakes stated by Mr. Obama in his 2009 speech at the same university: First, that radical Islamic terrorism does not stem from ideology; second, that the 9-11 attacks led America to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East; and third, that the United States and the Muslim world needed a “new beginning.” It was a direct condemnation of Mr. Obama’s policies that Mr. Trump could have, and probably should have, made himself.

Mr. Pompeo said that our penchant for wishful thinking led to our failure to help Iran’s revolutionaries in the 2009 “Green revolution,” and “to look the other way as Hizballah, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime, accumulated a massive arsenal of approximately 130,000 rockets and missiles” all pointed at Israel.

He said that our reluctance to act emboldened Iran and allowed its regime to spread its “cancerous influence to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria and still further to Lebanon.” Regarding Syria, Mr. Pompeo noted that while Mr. Trump has ordered our withdrawal from Syria, our mission there hasn’t changed. In blunt language, he said that U.S. airstrikes in the area “will continue as targets arise.” Which could be very often.

Mr. Pompeo left no doubt that the United States would neither cease its efforts to defeat ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks nor will we cease our efforts to stop Iran from spreading its malevolent influence in the region. His message was clear: America is not reluctant to act and will do so whenever circumstances require that we do.

Four days before Mr. Pompeo’s speech, Mr. Bolton — who was speaking for the president — said that our withdrawal from Syria was conditioned on an agreement with Turkey that protected the Kurdish forces that have been fighting alongside our troops in Syria. That remark brought an angry response from Mr. Erdogan saying that Turkey wouldn’t compromise, meaning that there will be no such agreement and that he still intends to kill all the Kurdish troops when we leave Syria.

Then, on Jan. 13, Mr. Trump tweeted the threat that we would “devastate” Turkey’s economy if it attacked the Kurds and suggested that a 20-mile “safe zone” be established to protect them. The following day, in a conversation with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Trump evidently made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, reiterating that America would devastate Turkey’s economy if Mr. Erdogan carried out his threat to attack the Kurds. Mr. Erdogan surrendered to Mr. Trump’s demand.

The call took place on Monday, and on Tuesday Mr. Erdogan agreed that there would be a 20-mile-wide safe zone for the Kurds along Turkey’s border with the Kurdish-held area of Syria.

How to protect the Kurds, and by what means, is one of the most important questions facing Mr. Trump. The oil-rich Kurdish territory of northern Iraq is prized by the Turks, Iraqis and Iranians. Mr. Erdogan fervently desires to capture all of the Kurdish territory in southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria.

The situation is a bit analogous to that which faced the victorious Allied powers when they met in Paris in 1919 to divide the world and decide which nations would rule its parts. Margaret Mitchell’s history of that period, “Paris 1919,” explains that an independent Kurdistan — even an autonomous Kurdish region of Turkey — was considered and then rejected for lack of interest and because the Kurds were too weak to represent themselves effectively.

The Trump-Erdogan agreement on the safe zone doesn’t, by a long shot, establish an independent Kurdistan. It will only last until Mr. Erdogan believes he can’t get away with violating it. Moreover, Iran, Turkey and Iraq aren’t bound by it.

But the agreement buys at least a little time for Mr. Trump to further his policies as explained in Mr. Pompeo’s speech. Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, and Russia are accelerating the pace of their aggression. Mr. Trump needs to match their pace to get ahead of their moves with our own.

If our adversaries, and even some of our allies, are confused by our actions that’s not a bad thing at all.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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