Kurds fleeing while ISIS prisoners escape
Northern Syria was engulfed in chaos this week as Turkey pressed a weeklong offensive against Kurdish forces once allied with the U.S., while Russian and Syrian government troops seized territory and bases hurriedly left behind by withdrawing U.S. soldiers. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) suffered an estimated 360 casualties amid intense fighting along the Syrian border after President Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade during a phone call and began withdrawing 1,000 U.S. soldiers from the region. As bombs and artillery shells fell, hundreds of ISIS-connected detainees escaped from detention camps formerly guarded by Kurdish fighters, and the U.S. military said it had to leave behind 60 “high-value” ISIS prisoners. An estimated 300,000 civilians fled, and at least 71 were killed or wounded. Meanwhile, Turkish-backed fighters executed nine Kurdish civilians—including a prominent female politician, Hevrin Khalaf. Shervan Darwish, an SDF-allied official, called the U.S. pullout a “betrayal.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is usually a defender of the president, called the situation in Syria “a complete and utter national security disaster in the making.”
Left vulnerable by America’s hasty withdrawal, the SDF allied with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who deployed thousands of troops into northern Syria. Meanwhile, Russian troops allied with the Assad regime began patrolling “along the line of contact between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey,” the Russian Defense Ministry said. Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi framed the decision to ally with Assad as one “between compromises and the genocide of our people.”
Amid mounting criticism from fellow Republicans, President Trump dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Turkey to ask Erdogan for a cease-fire. He also authorized sanctions against Turkish officials and raised tariffs on Turkish steel. U.S. officials also weighed evacuating 50 tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Trump said the Kurds were “no angels,” and that the fighting in Syria “has nothing to do with us.”
What the editorials said
“What a fiasco,” said The Wall Street Journal. By abandoning the Kurds, Trump has signaled to “the world’s rogues” that the U.S. has “little interest in engaging on behalf of American allies or interests.” Other allies will rightfully question whether they can ever trust America; adversaries such as Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah will be emboldened by our weakness. Sad to say, but “the world is laughing at an American president.”
Republicans like Graham are rightly outraged at Trump’s “overnight betrayal of the Kurds,” said The New York Times. But they have only themselves to blame. For almost three years they have stood idly by while this reckless, impulsive president has left “long-standing alliances in tatters overseas” and pursued an erratic and incoherent foreign policy. Trump’s defenders share his ownership of this “moral and strategic disaster.”
What the columnists said
“It’s probably impossible for Americans to fully grasp the sense of betrayal felt by the Syrian Kurds,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. They lost 11,000 fighters in helping us evict ISIS from its caliphate, and the American soldiers and CIA officers who were their partners in that struggle are deeply ashamed. “This will go down as a stain on the American reputation for decades,” said one Army officer and Syria veteran. A former CIA officer put it this way: “It’s a dagger to the heart to walk away from people who shed blood for us.”
Trump has proven that “his vision for military deployments is defined by hypocrisy,” said Tom Rogan in WashingtonExaminer.com. His justification for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria was his desire to get out of “endless wars.” Days later, he announced the deployment of 1,800 U.S. troops to help defend Saudi Arabia from Iran. The implication is clear. America only cares about allies “if they sell a lot of oil and buy a lot of American weapons.”
What’s now happening in northeastern Syria is “ethnic cleansing,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg and Amy Austin Holmes in The Washington Post. Erdogan fears the Kurds’ ambition for their own state, so he plans to resettle at least 1 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees marooned inside Turkey into the contested, northern area of Syria. Only 17 percent are actually from there, with the majority having fled Syrian regime–held areas. The invasion is a brutal effort to purge the Kurds from along its border.
Once again, Trump has undermined himself and our nation with a “glandular, impulsive decision,” said Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. If Trump were serious about withdrawing from Syria, the decision would have followed “intense planning” by the Pentagon and State Department and “tough negotiations” with the Turks in order to strike the best deal possible for the Kurds. The truth is that “the self-proclaimed world’s greatest negotiator” went off script in a phone call with Erdogan and agreed to pull out U.S. troops. By “winging it,” he created a debacle that will go down as “a singular moment in the Trump presidency.”
The “risk of a wider war” is growing, said Bill Neely and Saphora Smith in NBCNews.com. After the besieged Kurdish forces struck an alliance of necessity with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russian-backed Syrian government troops rushed to the border to face an invading Turkish army allied with “their old enemies, the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.” Meanwhile, the SDF-Assad alliance puts Russian President Vladimir Putin in a “commanding position” to broker a future deal between Syria and Turkey and re-establish his nation as a major regional player in the Middle East. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has also warned of “a potential ISIS resurgence,” said Eli Stokols and David Cloud in the Los Angeles Times. With the Pentagon redeploying all 1,000 U.S. troops remaining in Syria to Iraq, Kuwait, and possibly Jordan over the coming weeks, escaped jihadists are free to reconstitute and wage war again.
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP (3) ■