During a few wild weeks in October, U.S. allies watched as their own worst nightmare befell America’s Kurdish partners in Syria. Here’s what that means for America’s standing in the world.
Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images
Story by Uri Friedman – The Atlantic
There was a time when the withdrawal of roughly 50 American Special Forces from a couple of outposts in a remote part of Syria wouldn’t have generated a wave of angst across the world about the United States unceremoniously dumping its allies and terminating the international system it has led for more than 70 years.
That time is decidedly not now.
When I recently asked a European official about the fate of the Syrian Kurds, who, after that U.S. retreat in October, came under Turkish assault, the official referenced President Donald Trump’s contention that the fighting had “nothing to do with” the United States. In just over a week, the violence left hundreds of Kurdish fighters and civilians dead; more than 100,000 people displaced; the near defeat of the Islamic State in jeopardy; and Turkey, Russia, and the Iranian-backed Syrian government carving up territory vacated by the Kurds and the Americans.
The same official noted that Syrian Kurdish forces have been partners in the U.S.-led multinational military campaign against the Islamic State, and that “what happens [in Syria] is being called ‘other people’s business’ even though ‘other people’s business’ will affect in all likelihood America’s European allies.” Then the official posed the fundamental question raised by the U.S. position, one that will linger over the gathering of anti-ISIS coalition members in Washington, D.C., this week: “What does that mean for our confidence that in a time of crisis or challenge we will have the backing of our American allies?” (The official, like several others in this article, asked to speak about the situation in Syria on condition of anonymity.) “It’s too early to say how this will play out. It will depend on whether the risks can be curtailed. But it’s a question that is the writing on the wall right now.”
The president of France doesn’t think it’s too early to address that question, and the answer is earth-shattering for Europe. In an extraordinary interview with The Economist during the upheaval in Syria, Emmanuel Macron stated that when Trump tells him and other European leaders “‘It’s your neighborhood, not mine’ … we must hear what he’s saying,” which is, essentially, “‘I am no longer prepared to pay for and guarantee a security system for them,’ and so just ‘wake up.’”
Another official with a U.S.-allied government described Trump’s “green light to Turkey to invade Kurdish territory” as a “kind of betrayal.”
“Allies and partners worry that decreasing U.S. leadership and influence around the world might spark regional conflicts” as America’s competitors gain “more power and influence” and “fill the vacuum created by U.S. ignorance and isolationism,” the official told me.
What these sentiments show is that, despite all the international norms and institutions that have emerged since World War II, and all the talk of the United States as the world’s policeman, ultimately there are no incontrovertible rules, no institutions of last resort, and no world police. There are just leaders, their promises, and what they are actually prepared to do. That’s why inconsistency and unpredictability among allies are so unnerving. Your ally may have your back in theory, but if it doesn’t have your back in practice, you’re in serious trouble.
The premise of America’s network of alliances and collective-security arrangements has been that the U.S. will have its friends’ back, and vice versa, whether out of perceived mutual interests or shared values. These relationships have persisted over decades, despite the fact that Washington has at times left partners in the lurch—the South Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War, for example, and even the Kurds repeatedly over the past century. But this latest instance comes at a time in which the postwar system itself is in existential flux, with a rising China, a resurgent Russia, and a more inward-looking United States. Trump, moreover, has indicated that it was not just the U.S. commitment to the Kurds that was problematic; America’s commitments themselves are problematic.
All of this—the melding of the moment and the man—has made allies around the world more inclined to draw generalized lessons from Trump’s disorderly and disorienting decision regarding the Kurds in a way that, say, the West Germans might not have when U.S. forces exited South Vietnam. Simply put: An American ally today cannot feel entirely assured that the U.S. cavalry will ride to its rescue. This disquiet, which is having real-world consequences as I write, is unlikely to dissipate when the Trump presidency ends.
Trump’s decision after an October 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—to hastily pull U.S. troops from northeastern Syria and leave the Kurds, the principal fighters against ISIS, to face a Turkish military incursion—was not just another controversial foreign-policy move by a perennially controversial president.
Over the past year, the president has twice blindsided the world by announcing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, and twice partially reversed course under pressure from his advisers. He has oscillated between seeming to wash his hands of the Middle East and reluctantly digging back in, most recently dispatching thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia to deter Iran. This isn’t the all-out retreat of an isolationist America. It’s the ineffectual incoherence of a United States in strategic free fall.
We may look back on this time as the period in which the bottom fell out of America’s global standing, sending the United States and the rest of the world hurtling downward with no clear sense of where they will all land.
Throughout this saga, Trump has ridiculed Barack Obama for recoiling in 2013 from using military force to enforce his “red line” on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. That choice became the casus belli for critics who argued that the too-timid Obama was rendering America’s commitments worthless and its power hollow. But given all the fallout among Trump’s allies, both foreign and domestic, not to mention his detractors, and the impact of the U.S. government’s policy zigzagging in Syria these past weeks, Trump’s green-light moment will haunt him and the United States for a long time to come, like Obama’s red-line moment still looms large over his presidency.
It’s no coincidence that in both cases their troubles have originated in Syria. Refracted through U.S. politics, the two episodes have been portrayed as windows into the fitness of the commander in chief. But they are also reflections of the country itself. For a superpower reckoning with its diminished clout in a more multi-polar world, there is no greater test of the limits of American interests than the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century—in the region most associated with draining the United States of its strength.
As the Turkish military operation was taking place, I attended a panel discussion with Trump’s former national-security adviser H. R. McMaster. Since leaving office, the retired three-star general has spoken cautiously about his former boss. But when asked about Syria during this discussion, he cast off the muzzle.
Arguing that there is a “direct line” from Obama’s unenforced red line in Syria to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s land grabs in the South China Sea—a disputable claim—he reflected on how “the decisions we’re making today [are] affecting the perception of American power.” Allies have had misgivings about American consistency and reliability across multiple U.S. administrations, he allowed, but “I do think it’s reaching a dangerous point here where there’s too much misunderstanding and doubt.”
In his Economist interview, Macron plumbed the depths of that doubt. Citing the total absence of internal coordination as two NATO members—Turkey and the United States—took actions in Syria that threatened to undermine other members’ security, Macron declared the “brain death” of the 70-year-old military alliance. “The ultimate guarantor, the umbrella which made Europe stronger, no longer has the same relationship with Europe,” Macron said of the United States, which means that Europeans need to rethink how they preserve their safety and sovereignty. Yet he traced the cause of death back further than Trumpism. Obama’s failure to respond to chemical-weapons use in Syria was, he said, “the first stage in the collapse of the Western bloc.”
When I asked a U.S. official about the idea that Trump gave Erdoğan a “green light” for his marauding bands to attack a U.S. partner, the official vigorously disputed it as an “erroneous and false narrative.” But even that official admitted that this was the “current perception” and that “has hurt us deeply” around the world. And in foreign affairs, interpretation is often reality.
The narrative, moreover, isn’t just some collective hallucination of Trump’s critics. It’s coming from former members of his administration (including the man who oversaw the president’s anti-ISIS military campaign), from his most stalwart Republican supporters in Congress, from some top officials in the administration, and even from the president himself.
“The abrupt decision to withdraw [U.S. troops] and green-light the Turkish operation in northeast Syria was a betrayal of one of our best partners in the global war on terrorists,” a senior administration official told The Atlantic in late October. “It disrupted our ‘Defeat ISIS’ fight and hurt our reputation as a reliable partner worldwide.”
As the U.S. military scrambles to deal with the fallout in the Middle East, it has stressed that it won’t totally abandon the Kurds just yet. This week, the American spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition even held a joint press conference in Syria with the Kurdish-led forces’ spokesman.
In an internal memo obtained by The New York Times, William Roebuck, the lone American diplomat on the ground in northerneastern Syria these past few weeks, similarly stated that the administration “didn’t try” hard enough to deter Turkey’s offensive through diplomatic, economic, and military means. He wrote that the resulting violence, which included “war crimes and ethnic cleansing” by Turkish-supported Islamist militias, “is to a significant degree of our making,” and that Turkey’s operation “damaged our regional and international credibility.”
In the House of Representatives, 129 Republicans joined nearly all Democrats in denouncing Trump for scrapping efforts to prevent the Turkish military operation. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the developments in Syria a “strategic nightmare” that risked conjuring a “new world order” unfavorable to the United States. “If we abandon the Kurds, good luck getting anybody to help [America] in the future,” the Republican senator and Trump ally Lindsey Graham told me and other reporters during an October press conference, describing the situation as a potential “stain” on Trump’s presidency and America’s “honor.”
The stain, in fact, was already indelible. Several days after Trump’s decision, Hevrin Khalaf, a 34-year-old Syrian Kurdish politician working to reconcile ethnic groups in northeastern Syria, was hauled from her vehicle by Turkish-backed Syrian Arab militants, who then dragged her so forcefully by her hair that skin detached from her skull and fatally shot her in the head, face, and back. Hours after Graham’s remarks, in reference to the “nasty” violence that preceded a ceasefire his administration had managed to broker, Trump told cheering supporters at a campaign rally that it was “like two kids in a lot—you gotta let ’em fight and then you pull ’em apart.”
“I do sense genuine alarm” from Republicans who seem to “believe that this might be a tipping point in which it dramatically chills the enthusiasm of any other nation or group to ally with the United States,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee dealing with the Middle East and counterterrorism, told me.
The U.S. official who disputed that Trump gave a green light to Turkey asserted that there wasn’t a military “red light” to begin with. Under both Obama and Trump, the official said, the U.S. government never gave the Kurds a “military commitment to defend them against a NATO ally, Turkey,” or a “blank check” to be their “protectors forever.”
It’s true that the U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria wasn’t necessarily long for this world. The erasure of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate over the past year left Erdoğan itching to boot Syrian Kurdish fighters—whom he considers terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey—from his border. The U.S. military, meanwhile, found itself perched awkwardly between a NATO ally and a battlefield partner, in a country that hadn’t invited it in, helping to shield the Kurds as they pivoted from the ebbing battle with ISIS to building a quasi-autonomous statelet. “A partner, you’re dating. An ally is like a marriage. The feeling in the U.S. government about Turkey is you don’t want to have to go through signing the divorce papers,” the Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay told me.
But what has also become clear is that the U.S. government never leveled with the Syrian Kurds about how exactly their temporary, transactional relationship would end, perhaps because the U.S. government never leveled with itself. The U.S. official, for example, conceded that there was a time when Trump administration officials promised their Syrian Kurdish partners that U.S. troops would remain in the region until the United States defeated ISIS, kicked Iran out of the country, and helped broker a political solution to the civil war, though the official added that the dynamics changed when Trump first announced a military withdrawal in December 2018. (Roebuck, the American diplomat in northern Syria, wrote in his memo that he specifically told the Kurds the presence of U.S. troops and air power in the northeast would keep the Turkish military at bay.)
After Erdoğan informed Trump of his intention to invade Syria, Trump unveiled sanctions against Turkey and sent a delegation of the vice president, secretary of state, and national-security adviser to Ankara to secure a ceasefire, which they did. (The agreement compelled Kurdish forces, who were not included in the talks, to retreat from territory they controlled. It has mostly held, despite repeated violations since it came into effect.) “That isn’t abandoning the Kurds,” the U.S. official contended.
Chris Murphy countered that the October 6 phone call was the original sin: While Trump administration officials maintain that the handful of American soldiers in northern Syria lacked the authorization and ability to stave off the Turkish offensive, “everyone knows that the only thing that stopped Erdoğan from moving in was the fact that he was going to rub up against American troops.” What was different this time, Murphy argued, was “that Trump acquiesced.”
What happened to the Kurds was, in a sense, every U.S. ally’s worst nightmare come to life.
After three years of simmering doubt among America’s far-flung partners about Trump’s dedication to allies, the president for the first time actually cut one loose, showing little respect for the sacrifices the partner had made to advance their mutual interests. The decision to withdraw U.S. troops was made suddenly and unilaterally. No advance notice was given, not just to the Kurds and America’s closest allies but also to top officials working on Syria within the Trump administration.
“We were so frankly shocked and also concerned by the triple whammy: The White House announcement after the Erdoğan-Trump phone call, the beginning of the Turkish offensive, and the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal,” a European diplomat told The Atlantic.
The development also suggested a determination by the president to remove American troops from dangerous or costly overseas deployments that was so strong it trumped traditional American strategic considerations, among them keeping powerful adversaries such as Russia and Iran from contesting U.S. influence in the Middle East. It overrode core national-security considerations such as counterterrorism, as well. This was true even for a deployment that was much smaller, less expensive, and more successful than the “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq that Trump has lumped it in with.
This wasn’t just Trump engaging in one of his long-running rhetorical skirmishes with America’s partners. This was costing a partner territory. This was costing a partner lives. This was the U.S. military destroying its facilities and getting pelted with tomatoes by spurned partners as it rushed for the door.
What was especially jarring about the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria wasn’t that it happened, but how it happened.
“It seems to me that the president’s judgment on this is that American troops’ lives were saved and nothing else matters,” Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told me. (Khanna shares Trump’s desire to leave militarily from Syria but is critical of how the withdrawal has been carried out.) “There is no indication to me that he’s giving moral consideration to the lives of the Kurds. Maybe that’s what he means by ‘America First’: the diminishment of the moral consideration of non-American values and interests.”
The Trump administration is now shifting direction again by sending hundreds of troops back into Syria, this time to deny ISIS access to oil fields as part of the overall mission to defeat the terrorist group. But Russian, Turkish, and Iranian-backed Syrian forces have swooped onto land formerly occupied by U.S. and Kurdish forces. Whatever military presence the Trump administration ultimately settles on in the region, the ground has already shifted beneath the American boots going and coming.
“What does [this moment with Syria] mean for other international actors that want to create facts on the ground as fast as they possibly can in order to use an era of—whatever you call it, ‘restraint,’ ‘withdrawal,’ focusing on ‘America First’”—to their advantage? the European official asked, noting that the answer is “still behind the fog of war.”
And if Trump really is, after all the tumult of the past few weeks, reverting to something resembling the previous American military presence in Syria, then the U.S. will have watched partners be slaughtered, ceded territory to adversaries, and shed American leverage and influence to no apparent end.
Allies that have formal, decades-old defense treaties and strategic, institutional alliances with the United States surely will distinguish between their relationship and the one the U.S. had with a Kurdish militia. Yanking hundreds of American soldiers from northern Syria is not the same as yanking thousands from, say, Poland and the Baltics, where Trump has, in fact, sent more troops, despite his complaints about NATO members’ insufficient defense contributions. These allies are unlikely to overhaul their U.S. policies or lose all trust in American promises because of Trump’s recent actions in Syria. Some may even view the bipartisan outcry in Washington and the administration’s subsequent policy reversals as an encouraging sign that Trump will never get away with abandoning them completely. However, the fact that these allies are expressing alarm about what they just witnessed in Syria indicates that the tremors from Trump’s treatment of the Kurds have been powerful enough to shake those deep roots.
What’s now in question is not so much whether Trump will do to his traditional allies what he did to the Kurds; it’s what his decisions in Syria signify about the state of American power and interests. “We make clear the things that we will do [and] that we’re not prepared to do,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, when asked whether the president’s dealings with the Kurds had harmed U.S. credibility (a question he dismissed as “insane”). “Other countries must share the burden for not just the security of the world, but security for their own countries.”
In the case of Syria, Trump has now signaled more plainly than ever before that the resolution of the world’s worst crisis, the restraining of regional powers, the safeguarding of a frontline counterterrorism partner, and even the generational effort to stifle terrorist groups, are burdens the United States is not resolved to shoulder any longer—particularly if they might require the use of U.S. military force.
As Graham noted during his press conference, “The president did not give a green light, but Erdoğan went in anyway. And that’s the problem … China is watching. Russia is watching. Iran is watching.”
And China, Russia, and Iran aren’t the only ones tuning in. A leading South Korean newspaper broached a similarly improvisational American military withdrawal from South Korea, a possibility it categorized as part of the “Trump risk” that U.S. allies are now factoring into their foreign policymaking. Meanwhile, a Taliban negotiator predicted that the Afghan government will be the next American ally to be abandoned.
During a visit to Afghanistan in the middle of the Syria drama, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper appeared to recognize just how palpable these fears were. Whereas the United States “had no obligation … to defend the Kurds against a long-standing NATO ally,” he told Afghan officials, it does have “a long-standing commitment to our Afghan partners,” who “should not misinterpret our actions” in Syria.
But the Afghans are fearful. When I asked a senior Afghan official whether the events in Syria had raised concerns about the Trump administration abandoning Afghanistan through a precipitous military draw-down, the official said, “Yes, it does make me more worried.”
If the U.S. government wants to remove American troops from Afghanistan, and the withdrawal is done in coordination with the Afghan government and with measures in place to mitigate risk, “that we could work with,” the official said. But if the U.S. reaches a deal with the Taliban that allows the militant group to take over Afghanistan, it “would result in nothing but a huge civil war and big turmoil in the region.”
One of the revelations of the Trump era is that allies appear to be willing to endure rougher and more transactional treatment than previous American presidents might have assumed they would. As the international-relations scholar Van Jackson recently pointed out, “It’s important not to overstate what kind of price [America] will pay” for U.S. actions in Syria, because “for any number of states that are aligned with the U.S., they don’t have a good, viable alternative right now.” Still, he noted, “Trump is creating a deficit in American influence that future presidents are going to have to waste political capital on trying to make up”—that is, if they ever can.
If there is an overarching takeaway from the ferment in Syria over the past month, it may be what Fernando Cutz, a former top official on Trump’s National Security Council, told me in the thick of it. “We are firmly now backing out of” Pax Americana, the era after World War II that featured relative peace and prosperity in large part because of the United States’ projection of power and role as a “a stable, respected, trusted entity,” he said. And now we’re “starting a new chapter.”
“Even under a best-case scenario, this [moment] will leave a mark that people will not forget, even if they want to move on,” said Cutz. “There will constantly, in this [generation of foreign leaders’] mind, be a part of their brain that’s considering, when they reach an agreement with the United States or enter into an alliance with the United States or strategic partnership with the United States, whether or not we’ll be there when they actually need us.”
With regard to Syria, the Trump Doctrine has succeeded in one way: Other countries are becoming more assertive in addressing the fallout, though not always effectively or in a manner consistent with U.S. interests. U.S. allies recognize that they can’t completely count on Washington but nevertheless remain reliant on the U.S.-led multinational system, a predicament that curbs their ambitions and emboldens adversaries. Exhibit A is the chaos in Syria, which Russia now bestrides like a colossus.
Several European countries and Canada, for instance, took the step of halting arms exports to Turkey in retaliation for its incursion—a move distinctly different from the Trump administration’s response, which was to impose sanctions and then lift them. The international measures “were clearly not done in coordination with us,” Murphy noted.
On October 10, the European Union drafted a resolution in the United Nations Security Council demanding that Turkey cease its military operation. But Russia and the United States (that’s right, Russia and the United States!) opposed it, and the measure went nowhere. Last month, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the German defense minister and likely next chancellor, called for an international security zone in northern Syria, the first proposal by modern Germany for a military mission in the Middle East. She declared that her nation’s power and “global interests” mean that it “cannot just stand on the sidelines and watch.” That idea has made no headway both within Germany and without.
The dizzying developments in Syria represent “a decisive moment for the United States in terms of its relationships in general and at the same time being a superpower in the world. Power always brings authority, and authority comes with responsibility,” the senior Afghan official told me. The United States “cannot be a great nation and fully isolated and secluded and inward-looking and thinking that whatever happens in the rest of the world has nothing to do with them,” the Afghan official continued. “In this time in the course of human history, that’s not an option.”
Yara Bayoumy and Kathy Gilsinan contributed reporting.
Uri Friedman is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering national security and global affairs.