With the exception of George H.W. Bush, every president in the last four decades has had a military debacle. Donald Trump is on the verge of one. He can still avoid it, but time is running out.
Jimmy Carter had Desert One, Ronald Reagan had the Beirut bombing, Bill Clinton had Blackhawk Down, Bush II had the aftermath of the regime takedown in Iraq, and Barack Obama had the ISIS emergence in the wake of his ill-advised Iraqi withdrawal. In each case, the disaster occurred in the first term of the chief executives involved. All five seemed to have learned something from disaster although Mr. Carter didn’t get a second term. Say what you will about the first Bush, but he knew how to throw a war as witnessed by Panama and Desert Storm.
Up until early October, Donald Trump appeared to have avoided military disaster during his first term, but the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Turkish-Syrian border was followed almost immediately by an attack by our NATO ally Turkey on our anti-ISIS ally the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). This raises the specter of both a humanitarian crisis and the escape of thousands of ISIS fighters and their supporters from prisons and camps. Mr. Trump made a mistake. His domestic enemies know it. But more importantly, some of his closest allies know it. The question now is how to recover while there is still time.
When you unilaterally withdraw from a conflict, three things can happen; two of them are bad. In the best case, the Turks will stop at the buffer zone that they have said they want to create south of the Turkey-Syria border. In that case, the incident will likely be quickly forgotten. But even if that happens, Mr. Trump will get no political credit at home or abroad.
The first really bad thing that can happen would be a protracted Turk-Kurd guerrilla war followed by an escape if the ISIS remnants and a resurgence of ISIS activity in Syria for which the president would get most of the blame. The worst case would be for the Syrian Assad regime and their Iranian/Russian allies to move into the power vacuum and massacre all of the anti-regime rebel forces while regaining control of all of Syria. Again, Mr. Trump would get the blame and the Russians and Iranians would become dominant in the region. Put simply, Mr. Trump is facing a lose-lose situation no matter which scenario plays out.
Sometimes the best action is to do nothing, and that is precisely what Mr. Trump should have done in Syria. There was no hue and cry to withdraw troops and the situation was as stable as anything can be in the Middle East. U.S. casualties were negligible, and the U.S. political debate was focused on domestic matters. Mr. Trump’s desire to get out of foreign conflicts was the least of the issues his base cared about given the present impeachment imbroglio. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey asked him to withdraw, the president should have said no and gone on to more important things. Now, he is in a serious — but fixable — pickle; extreme flexibility in needed.
The situation is not yet irreversible, but the president must act quickly if he wants to avert disaster. He should insist on a Turk-Kurd cease fire followed by U.S.-brokered talks aimed at a solution that would secure the Turkish border while allowing the Kurds to continue to control ISIS prisoners and detained civilians. There are areas of compromise that can be reached diplomatically that can put a brake on the situation.
Before the current crisis, the American presence was a combination of peacekeeping between the Kurds and Turks and a low-level counterinsurgency presence to prevent a re-emergence of ISIS. It wasn’t perfect, but it was working. The Syrian government was a Russian-Iranian rump state despised by the region’s dominant Arabs, ISIS was reduced to a low-level but controllable insurgency, and the fragile anti-ISIS coalition — which the Turks were a negligible part — was holding.
By putting American diplomatic pressure backed up by military pressure back to work, Mr. Trump has the potential to begin to work toward a viable solution that would keep two of its most valuable regional allies away from each other’s throats. This is as much an opportunity as a problem if handled properly. The president’s strategic approach is based on having allies do more. That approach is totally undermined if the allies are killing each other instead of our mutual enemies.
• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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