The Consequences of Donald Trump Washing His Hands of the Middle East
The short-term costs have been brutal, but the longer-term ones could be far more significant.
Today Donald Trump stood in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room before a portrait of George Washington, who 223 years ago warned of the danger of foreign entanglements, and declared the United States disentangled from the Middle East—a region America’s leaders have for decades considered vital to national security.
Yet ever since he announced the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria this month, giving way to a brutal Turkish military offensive against Kurdish forces there, Trump has witnessed the grave consequences of this disengagement. Just in the short term, recent days have brought the slaughter and mass displacement of Kurds, whom the United States relied on to cripple the Islamic State in Syria; the collective shudder of U.S. allies around the world at America’s rank betrayal of its battlefield partners; and the springing loose of at least 100 ISIS fighters from prisons operated by overwhelmed Kurdish-led militias.
In the longer term, the withering of U.S. influence as Turkish, Russian, and Iranian-backed Syrian forces rush into the vacuum, and the radiating security threats that these shifting dynamics pose, could be even more consequential—to American allies in the region and beyond, and to the United States itself.
Trump’s core message in announcing a U.S.-mediated halt to fighting between the Turks and Kurds was that in his calculation, these costs are eclipsed by the benefits of extracting the United States from the Middle East, at least militarily. Yes, the Trump administration will for now keep a small number of forces in Syria around oil facilities in the north and at a base in the south, has yet to pull U.S. troops from conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recently deployed thousands of American soldiers to Saudi Arabia after Iranian attacks on oil facilities there.
But what should be obvious to allies and adversaries alike from Trump’s comments today, if it wasn’t evident already, is that his heart isn’t in these deployments and in involving the United States in any regional conflicts. The president’s goal “is to have all American troops out of Syria, and that’s something that we believe will ultimately happen,” a senior Trump-administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters after the president’s speech.
In remarks that America’s enemies, from ISIS to the Taliban to Iran will no doubt heed, Trump made clear that while he is willing to make some modest diplomatic and economic investments in molding developments, he has little appetite for expending military resources to secure U.S. interests—even when it comes to something as central to the defense of the homeland as preventing the resurgence of the world’s most virulent terrorist groups with, relative to the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small deployment of U.S. troops.
“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” Trump said today, regarding territory on which more than 11,000 Kurdish fighters perished in the fight against ISIS so U.S. troops didn’t have to. (The president thanked these fighters for their “sacrifices” and said they’d “been terrific.”) The United States has done a “great service” and “great job” for Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds by engineering a pause in their perpetual fighting, he argued, “and now we’re getting out.”
Even as he denounced Barack Obama for not retaliating militarily against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians in 2013, Trump expressed the very same fatalism about the Middle East that had prevented his predecessor from pulling the trigger to enforce his infamous “red line.”
“We have avoided another costly military intervention that could’ve led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences,” Trump said of his decision not to oppose the incursion by Turkey. “We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East … But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded—so many—the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.”
The president limited his ambitions in Syria to securing “the oil” and deterring Turkey through the threat of economic sanctions from persecuting religious and ethnic minorities, an issue prioritized by his evangelical Christian supporters in the United States. He outsourced efforts to defeat ISIS, which now has a new lease on life, to the embattled Kurds, nominating Turkey as a “backup” that could “grab them” if need be. And he signaled that extending a five-day cease-fire, even though it’s liable to collapse at any moment, was sufficient for him to proclaim victory, lift all the sanctions he imposed on Turkey for its offensive, and leave behind the precarious situation on the ground.
Apparently viewing his scripted remarks as mere suggestions, Trump repeatedly ad-libbed comments that undercut his claims of success. Noting Turkey’s assurance that the cease-fire would be permanent, he added, “You would also define the word permanent in that part of the world as somewhat questionable.” He stated that peace and stability had come to the border between Turkey and Syria in the form of a “safe zone”—an “interesting term,” he observed, denoting a strip of land that had seen all manner of atrocities but that “hopefully … will become safe.” He accepted congratulations for his diplomatic endeavor, and congratulated himself, but acknowledged that “it’s too early, to me, to be congratulated.” His boasts about brokering a resolution among the warring parties in a matter of days was belied by something he said with far more conviction: that it was futile to intervene in “ancient sectarian and tribal conflicts.”