Confusion and chaos reign as Trump ends U.S. presence in Syria
President Donald Trump has united disparate political factions in the United States against his policy of paving the way for a Turkish invasion of Syria, while also sowing confusion abroad which threatens to undermine Washington's long-term interests.
Underscoring the chaos, Trump himself appeared conflicted over how to wield U.S. power in the Middle East or unwind overseas deployments.
The president shifted between being complicit in the invasion, threatening to destroy the Turkish economy and ultimately imposing only mild sanctions against Ankara. All this, while still inviting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington next month.
Ankara brushed off the sanctions and said it will push ahead with the invasion, with officials saying the country will not be bossed around by Washington.
"This is really, to me, a shockingly bad decision by this administration," said James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander at NATO and a retired U.S. admiral.
One of the main concerns is the return of the Islamic State terrorist militia, which will be able to take advantage of the disorder on the ground to regroup. Already there are signs prisoners were able to escape as a result of the invasion.
"The deployment to Syria was 2,000 to 3,000 at the most," Stavridis told Fox Radio about the U.S. forces, which supported a militia led by Syrian-Kurds, calling it a "minimal deployment, sensible deployment."
Furthermore, just as Trump was withdrawing from Syria, the president began reinforcing U.S. positions in Saudi Arabia with thousands of troops, undercutting his own narrative of trying to "end the endless wars" and bring troops home.
Additionally, the U.S. still has troops in Syria, setting up potential confrontations with Turkish-backed troops and making the departure far from clean.
Congress will still move ahead with its own sanctions. Chris Van Hollen, the lead Democratic senator pushing for tougher measures against Turkey, called the White House's sanctions "pathetic" and denounced Trump for abandoning the United States' Kurdish allies.
"Our proposed sanctions will be very biting and they will stay in effect until Turkey ends its aggression against the Syrian Kurds and withdraws its forces and proxies from the areas that it's taken," Van Hollen told public radio, expecting "very strong bipartisan support."
Indeed, Republicans came out loudly against Trump on Syria - Senator Lindsey Graham threatened Erdogan with "sanctions from hell" - but the president may have strategically taken the wind out of their sails.
By imposing some sanctions, Trump is setting up an argument with Congress that the White House already acted, even if it was mostly symbolic.
"The Turkish invasion is unlikely to be slowed or stopped significantly by the new executive sanctions," Jarod Taylor, an analyst, wrote for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The danger is that domestic political manoeuvring can undermine any formation of a coherent foreign policy, Taylor cautioned.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper is travelling to Europe to convince allies to take measures against Turkey, in what would be a sign of a broader policy process that involves partner countries, a framework that Washington has sorely lacked for some time. At the same time, Vice President Mike Pence will head to Turkey, for tough talks focused on a ceasefire, even though much of the damage has already been done.
The confusion over policy will only make it harder for allies and adversaries alike to gauge the president and understand correctly his intentions. The commander-in-chief acting on his gut in Syria has led to certain worst fears being realised:
The UN alleges that Turkish-backed forces have carried out summary executions; there is mass displacement of people; and humanitarian aid organisations have stopped working in the area. All this, in a part of Syria that was relatively stable.
Michael Hanna, at The Century Foundation, a U.S. think tank, said that the U.S. gave Turkey the "green light" to invade, which was an error, but this does not mean the U.S. needed to stay in Syria forever. Rather, Washington needed an orderly plan to wind down. What has emerged is the opposite.
"We squandered all our leverage," Hanna said in an interview. "There is still a place for the United States to ... try to temper the worst possibilities, but it won't be happening from a position of strength."
The latest U.S. move will allow Russia, the main power broker in Syria, to further consolidate its gains in the country by ensuring the Syrian government fills much of the void Washington has created. Turkey too will seize a deeper foothold.
Nicholas Danforth, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said Turkey chalked up a short-term win, by effectively destroying a Kurdish statelet on its border and is banking on a limited U.S. response.
"It seems that Ankara remains convinced that it is too indispensable a geopolitical player for Washington to alienate," Danforth said.
However, Turkey has been dodging bullets for a number of years, including with Trump's help, after violating sanctions on Iran and purchasing the Russian S-400 air defence system, despite being a member of NATO.
Republican lawmakers may be looking for a way to demonstrate independence from the White House without warring with the president. The Syria debacle would present them with a low-cost opportunity to strike out, with their target fixed on Turkey.
"Trump can be fickle and Trump is also not the only actor in the U.S.," Danforth cautioned leaders abroad.
On the other hand, Turkey may again walk away with minimal damage, having benefitted from the chaos in Washington. (dpa)