President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutors investigating Giuliani: report House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman and top Republican to introduce sanctions bill against Turkey Trump lashes out at 2020 Dems, impeachment inquiry MORE this week showed no sign of backing down on his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, stoking fears in Washington of worst-case scenarios from abandoning a crucial defense partner.
Trump’s move, which has paved the way for Turkey to proceed with a long-planned offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces who were instrumental in the fight against ISIS, has far-reaching implications both at home and abroad.
Critics, including many from Trump’s own party, argue the president is irreparably damaging the country’s standing as a reliable partner by abandoning a U.S. ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to be slaughtered by Turkey as well as fueling mayhem in the region that could allow ISIS to regain its footing.
Trump, however, has pushed ahead, insisting the Kurds have mostly been fighting for their land and that he is filling a campaign promise to end “forever wars.”
Here are five reasons Trump’s move could spell trouble.
ISIS fight upended, threatening a resurgence
In moving back from the Syria-Turkey border, U.S. troops left their Kurdish partners to both guard prisons holding more than 10,000 ISIS fighters and defend against Turkey’s incursion.
Critics fear the SDF will abandon or release ISIS prisoners when it has to devote its resources to fighting Ankara.
The attacks also have distracted from NATO’s counter-ISIS campaign, though Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Friday insisted that the fight against ISIS in Syria had not stopped.
The SDF “is still guarding prisoners in the area that have been detained over time,” he told reporters at the Pentagon while acknowledging the Turkish incursion “has had some effect” on the ISIS fight.
The administration insists Turkey will be responsible for detaining ISIS fighters, but Brett McGurk, who resigned as Trump’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition in December, warned Turkey “has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity” to manage ISIS detainees.
“Believing otherwise is a reckless gamble with our national security,” he tweeted.
US reputation damaged for future partnerships
In defending his decision to pull back U.S. troops, Trump has claimed he is fulfilling a campaign promise to halt “endless wars.”
But in leaving the SDF to fend for itself, lawmakers warn Trump has sent a chilling message to allies and potential U.S. partners who may want help in future conflicts.
The Trump administration “cut deal with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] allowing him to wipe [the Kurds] out. Damage to our reputation & national interest will be extraordinary & long lasting,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump puts election-year politics at center of impeachment case Trump feud with Minneapolis mayor to take center stage at rally Senators ask Treasury to probe Brazilian meatpacker with major US footprint MORE (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
The president also sparked backlash among lawmakers for downplaying the Kurds’ role in helping the U.S. fight against ISIS, tweeting that they “fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”
Trump maintained during a rambling press conference Wednesday that the Kurds are merely “fighting for their land.” He attempted to justify his stance based on the fact that Kurdish soldiers did not fight alongside Americans during World War II.
The Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example—they mention the names of different battles, they weren’t there,” Trump said.
Syrian Kurdish officials have accused the president of stabbing them in the back after 11,000 of their troops were killed in the battle against ISIS.
“Now we have been betrayed,” Ilham Ahmed, co-chairman of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political arm, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week.
Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon insists US hasn’t abandoned Kurds | Trump expands sanctions authority against Turkey | Ex-Ukraine ambassador says Trump pushed for her ouster Defense secretary insists US has not abandoned Kurds Trump expands his authority to sanction Turkey amid Syria offensive MORE insisted Friday that “we have not abandoned the Kurds” but said the U.S. was focused on protecting its own soldiers first.
Trump goes head-to-head with his own party
Some of the staunchest critics of Trump’s Syria move include numerous figures from his own party.
The pushback came swiftly, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyTulsi Gabbard rips Trump’s Syria decision: ‘Kurds are now paying the price’ Trump defends Turkey in wake of fierce GOP criticism Overnight Defense: Republicans urge Trump to reverse course on Syria | Dems subpoena Pentagon in impeachment probe | North Korea talks falter MORE tweeting that leaving the Kurds “to die is a big mistake.”
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman and top Republican to introduce sanctions bill against Turkey US troops in Syria come under Turkish artillery fire Trump to meet Italian president at White House next week MORE (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, called the decision a “disaster in the making,” adding that it “ensures [an] ISIS comeback” and “will be a stain on America’s honor.”
Graham, along with Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenHouse Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman and top Republican to introduce sanctions bill against Turkey On The Money: Trump announces limited trade deal with China | Appeals court rules against Trump over financial records | Trump expands authority to sanction Turkey Democrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules MORE (D-Md.), is looking to impose financial repercussions on Turkey.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyOn The Money: Trump announces limited trade deal with China | Appeals court rules against Trump over financial records | Trump expands authority to sanction Turkey Trump expands his authority to sanction Turkey amid Syria offensive Overnight Defense: Trump tries to defend stance on Kurds | Biden says Trump sold out allies | McMaster criticizes Trump’s Syria decision | Latest on arrest of Giuliani associates MORE (Wyo.) this coming week also plans to introduce legislation to implement sanctions on Turkey, an act that has already garnered more than two dozen GOP co-sponsors.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill’s Morning Report — Arrest of Giuliani associates triggers many questions Cheney slated to introduce bill to place sanctions on Turkey McCarthy will return money donated by indicted associates of Giuliani MORE (R-Calif.), House Minority Whip Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseCheney slated to introduce bill to place sanctions on Turkey Trump holds call with House GOP amid impeachment inquiry House conservatives press Schiff over knowledge of whistleblower complaint MORE (R-La.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryCheney slated to introduce bill to place sanctions on Turkey Pentagon space agency to request .6 billion over five years: report What’s causing the congressional ‘Texodus’? MORE (R-Texas) are among the Republicans who have supported the legislation so far.
The Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Friday they will also introduce legislation to slap sanctions on Turkey.
Washington’s relationship with Ankara is further strained
The relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has been tense over the last several years and was made all the worse in July after Ankara purchased a Russian air defense system.
The system is incompatible with other NATO systems and led the United States to remove Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program, with U.S. national security personnel fearing the Russian system would allow the Kremlin to glean sensitive and protected information from the advanced fighter jet.
Esper on Friday said the United States is “greatly disappointed” by Turkey’s offensive in Syria and that it had damaged the already tense relationship between the two countries.
Making matters worse, U.S. Special Forces troops stationed in Syria came under artillery fire from Turkey late Friday, even as Milley earlier in the day said the Turkish military “is fully aware, down to explicit grid coordinate detail, of the locations of U.S. forces.”
The Pentagon maintained it “remains opposed” to the operation, especially “in areas where the Turks know U.S. forces are present,” and warned Turkey it may respond if U.S. troops are threatened.
“The U.S. demands that Turkey avoid actions that could result in immediate defensive action,” Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt said in a statement.
Rising tensions were underscored when the leaders of the House Foreign Relations panel signaled their support for legislation to slap sanctions on Turkey. The bipartisan bill would sanction Turkish officials and banks until the country ends its military operations in Syria.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday also threatened “powerful sanctions” against Ankara and said the United States “can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to.”
Erdoğan said the same day, however, that Turkey “will not take a step back” from its offensive.
Russia, Iran empowered by move
Trump’s decision in northern Syria has left a potential power vacuum in the area, with security experts and former U.S. officials calling the move “a gift” to U.S. adversaries such as Russia and Iran.
“Trump tonight after one call with a foreign leader provided a gift to Russia, Iran, and ISIS,” McGurk said Monday on Twitter.
Moscow and Tehran have both inserted their militaries into Syria’s eight-year civil war, bolstering Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the United States has imposed sanctions on Russia for its support of the Assad government.
National security experts fear that Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinEx-top Trump Russia aide to testify about ‘shadow policy’ on Ukraine: report The Russian offensive in Africa and America’s feeble response Cheney says Congress ‘must and will’ act after Turkey launches ‘sickening’ offensive in Syria MORE, who has made no secret of extending the Kremlin’s influence into the Middle East, will use Trump’s move as an opportunity to gain more of a foothold in Syria.
Putin late this week called on foreign militaries to leave Syria as Turkey continued to wage its offensive while signaling that Russian forces would stay in the country until a new Syrian government tells Moscow it doesn’t need any more help.
Russia already counts Turkey as a friend, with Moscow selling a missile defense system to Ankara earlier this year, drawing the ire of Washington.
Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin slammed Trump for “impulsive and reckless instincts,” calling his move this week “a disaster on multiple levels.”
“The kingmakers will be U.S. rivals Russia and Iran, working with a wandering U.S. ally, Turkey,” McLaughlin wrote Thursday.