The media usually describes conflicts such as the war in Syria as “fluid,” “volatile,” or “uncertain.” A more accurate description would be, “foreseeable.”
On the basis of the events that preceded them, the recent actions of President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan are a case study in foreseeable primary and secondary effects.
During their October 6 conversation, Mr. Erdogan renewed his frequently repeated demand that the United States pull our troops out of northeastern Syria. Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw about 50 to make way for a Turkish force. He thus “green lighted” Turkey’s invasion of the area and emboldened Mr. Erdogan. A few days later, after Turkish artillery fire bracketed a U.S. outpost there — intentionally, not accidentally, hitting both sides of it — Mr. Trump decided to pull all of our approximately 1,000 troops from the area.
Mr. Erdogan, riding a wave of popularity at home, believed correctly that he’d won a major confrontation with the United States. He celebrated by revealing that the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria was, in fact, an ethnic cleansing campaign.
According to the Financial Times, Mr. Erdogan said his government was in discussions with Russia — with which he and Iran had joined in a treaty to protect Syrian leader Bashar Assad — about the strategic Arab-majority town of Manbij. The FT quoted Mr. Erdogan as saying the town needed to be “emptied” of the Kurdish “terrorist organizations” that control it.”
In the October 6 call, Mr. Trump couldn’t have been surprised by Mr. Erdogan’s demand that we withdraw from Syria which Mr. Erdogan has been demanding since Mr. Trump became president. That demand, along with Mr. Erdogan’s signing the treaty with Russia and Iran, his purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems — forbidden by the United States — and his Islamization of formerly secular Turkey deprived of credibility Mr. Trump’s threat to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy with economic sanctions if it took objectionable action in Syria.
Mr. Erdogan’s invasion order — and that his forces would not stop before all U.S. troops were driven from the area — were entirely foreseeable.
Mr. Trump’s decision to impose only minor sanctions against Turkey was a form of vacillation that weakened America’s position. That effect seemed to be worsened by the president sending Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo to Ankara to plead for a cease fire after Mr. Erdogan rejected the idea.
Mr. Trump wants to withdraw U.S. troops from all the conflict zones in the Middle East to end the “endless wars” he campaigned against in 2016. That’s a laudable idea, but he apparently doesn’t understand that you can’t expect a positive result from any war that you abandon to the enemy.
As I have written on this page, unless America fights a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, we will lose it inevitably.
The president’s errors are very serious, but so are Mr. Erdogan’s.
Having entered into a 2016 treaty with Russia and Iran to defend the Assad regime, and having purchased the highly-sophisticated S-400 anti-missile/anti-aircraft systems, Mr. Erdogan apparently believed he had secured Russia’s cooperation in his ambition to establish Turkey as a major power. But his dreams of a new Turkish caliphate were quashed quickly. Not by us, but by Russia.
Mr. Erdogan intended to occupy — and ethnically cleanse — an area 32 kilometers deep in Syria. A week into the Turkish invasion, Russia said any such invasion was “unacceptable” and announced that its troops would prevent fighting between Syrian and Turkish forces. Russia thus put an end to Mr. Erdogan’s territorial ambition.
That action is a blunt message from Russian President Putin to Mr. Erdogan that its territorial gains in Syria are far more important to Russia than Mr. Erdogan pretends it to be. Having established Russian power in the Middle East by its huge footprint in Turkey, Mr. Putin is not about to allow Mr. Erdogan to even slightly whittle away at it.
Instead of Turkish troops eliminating Kurdish people in Manbij, the town is now occupied by Syrian troops. Abandoned by the United States, the Kurds have sought — and are obtaining — some protection from the Assad regime.
Mr. Erdogan’s “victories,” small as Mr. Putin is making them, are becoming ever costlier to us, and to him.
One of the clearly foreseeable results of our abandonment of the Kurds is the release of at least 10,000 ISIS fighters from camps in which they had been held by U.S. and Kurdish forces. There will be a major ISIS resurgence in Syria and wherever those people can travel.
Russia and Iran are — again, foreseeably — the other big winners in Syria. Having already established major bases and power centers in western Syria, they are now able to expand into the northeast. Russian troops have already occupied a base abandoned by ours.
Some European NATO members are making noise but will do nothing significant to penalize Mr. Erdogan. That’s because he has threatened to open the gates for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to get to Europe, causing another immigration crisis like the one that began in 2015. The Europeans won’t risk that.
The 120-hour cease-fire agreement with Mr. Erdogan that Mr. Pence announced Thursday enables the retreat of Kurdish forces from a “safe zone” to be occupied by Turkey. However, it does nothing to ensure that the 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in captivity. It also promises that Mr. Trump will not only decline to impose further sanctions on Turkey, he will remove those that had just been imposed. It looks like another costly victory for Mr. Erdogan.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”