Trump's 'Mission Accomplished' Moment in Syria: Will It Stick?
President Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” assessment Wednesday, when he announced that the U.S. had brokered a permanent cease-fire between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, managed to mollify at least one prominent but combustible ally-turned-harsh-critic on the issue.
Shortly after Trump deemed Turkey’s promise of a cease-fire -- and his decision to lift short-lived sanctions on Ankara -- a triumph of his administration’s diplomacy, Sen. Lindsey Graham released a lengthy statement in which he too declared the new development, if permanent, “real progress.”
“If we can create a sustainable safe zone – that protects Turkey’s national security interests and prevents ethnic cleansing of our Kurdish allies – that will be real progress,” Graham said, stressing the need for “the international community” to police the newly designated safe zone, not Syria, Russia or Turkey.
Of course, those are some big “ifs,” and Trump’s statement left several pressing questions unanswered about the cease-fire. One of the most important, which Graham hit on, is exactly what type of international force will control the safe zone and will America trust those governments enough to provide the air power needed to enforce it?
In his remarks, Trump seemed to leave much of the responsibility for enforcement to Turkey and Russia.
“Let someone else fight over this bloodstained sand,” Trump stated flatly from the Diplomatic Room in the White House.
“Others have come out to help and we welcomed them to do so; other countries have stepped forward,” he added, an apparent reference to negotiations that took place in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday between Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Beyond winning over Graham, at least temporarily, Trump’s announcement did little to bridge the deeply entrenched divisions within the Republican Party and American defense and diplomatic circles about Trump’s Middle East policy and his dual goals of ending “endless wars” while defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda.
“It’s just words,” Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told RealClearPolitics. “We can’t even distinguish between ISIS and the gangs of jihadists who are roaming in Northern Syria killing people” -- revenge slayings carried out because U.S. forces no longer have eyes and ears on the ground to verify what transpires in the border region of northern Syria.
“This was an unnecessary move at an inopportune time, which effectively ends our campaign to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he concluded about the president’s decision earlier this month to withdraw U.S. forces.
The cease-fire has already been violated repeatedly, Pregent said, and Erdogan is allowing Sunni “revenge gangs” to run free and take advantage of ungoverned areas and the chaos while claiming that they aren’t Turkish forces and Erdogan therefore cannot control them.
Pregent pointed to a video circulating on social media of a fighter belonging to Turkey-backed Syrian factions stepping on the body of a female Kurdish fighter who had been killed during the Turkish invasion; the fighter shouts, “Allahu Akbar, ISIS is coming.”
Prominent voices in Washington’s foreign policy establishment issued similar warnings, arguing that the small number of U.S. forces policing the region before the invasion – less than 30 -- had been a low-cost way for the U.S. to maintain regional stability and keep its promises to Kurdish allies, many of whom fought and died to defeat ISIS.
“Nothing @realDonaldTrump said today changes the fact there was a low-cost, acceptable situation in northern Syria before he pulled U.S. troops back, which cost Kurdish lives, allowed Syria’s brutal govt. to reassert control, & will be a boon to ISIS. And it shredded our reputation,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted after Trump’s statements Wednesday.
Other national security experts countered that, while lacking a deliberate approach, Trump’s moves don’t spell disaster for the region -- as even some of Trump’s Republican supporters are predicting.
“I was never in the camp that this was a disaster to begin with,” said James Carafano, a leading national security expert at the Heritage Foundation who also served on Trump’s presidential transition team. “I don’t think this is a real turning point in the Syrian civil war. If somebody had the capability of winning the Syrian civil war, they would have done it 10 years. No one has the wherewithal to win this thing and a couple hundred American soldiers was never a tipping point.”
When it comes to American national security interests, the most important thing was defeating ISIS, and the Trump administration accomplished this, he told RCP.
“The key thing is that the caliphate is dead; there are … fighters running around but it doesn’t have the capability” to really regroup, Carafano argued.
Those asserting that the Russians or the Iranians are the real winners under the cease-fire aren’t looking at reality on the ground, he added.
“There is no place for the Russians to go in Syria; they bump into the Turks and the Iranians, and the Iranians are under enormous stress from the [U.S.-led] pressure campaign,” he said.
Even some longtime national security hawks stopped short of denouncing Trump’s announcement, though they predicted only time would tell if the cease-fire eventually disintegrates, as have other American declarations of victory in the Middle East.
“I’m OK with lifting sanctions at this point because I think they were applied capriciously in the first place, more to make Trump feel better about the mistaken green light he had previously given Erdogan than to achieve any tangible effect going forward,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, told RCP. “But we should be willing to reimpose them if Turkey’s behavior deteriorates and its operation trends toward ethnic cleansing.”