President Trump’s phone call last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is evidence that the Marx Brothers were a better coordinated bunch than Trump and the others running foreign policy in this administration. The stumbles, bumbles and fumbles reflect a team that still lacks a coherent strategy toward Syria.
The president reportedly reassured the Turkish president that the U.S. would cease military support to the Kurdish militias. These were the forces the administration relied on, along with U.S. airpower, to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's caliphate, and on which it was pinning its hopes to pressure the Assad regime and contain Iran in Syria.
But Turkey has long been pressed Washington to end its support for Kurdish militias in northern Syria, which it sees as closely allied with the terrorist PKK and a threat to Turkey’s internal stability and security along the Syrian-Turkish border. On Friday, the White House confirmed that President Trump had acquiesced. But that left State Department and National Security Council officials scrambling to make sense of what the president had done and to clean up the mess.
Only a day earlier, senior administration officials had told the media about U.S .plans to use the U.S.-supported Kurds to pressure the Assad regime and itss Iranian backers into a political settlement. And it seemed as though Washington was shifting from an anti-ISIS campaign to emerging as a player in efforts to stabilize the country and achieve a political settlement.
Indeed, in a press conference on Nov. 13, Defense Secretary James Mattis all but said U.S. forces would remain in Syria until a political settlement was reached: “But we're not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked.”
It’s hard to imagine that the timing and substance of the president’s call to Erdogan were thoroughly vetted and carefully scripted. According to the Turkish foreign minister, Trump told Erdogan that “this nonsense (weapons to Kurds) should have ended a long time ago.” There’s no indication the Kurds were informed in advance that this was coming — or that the administration had developed a thoughtful plan to roll out this decision.
In essence, the president pulled the rug out from America’s Kurdish allies; undermined his own administration’s policy of toughening up its approach toward Iran; and seemingly denied itself leverage on the battlefield to influence the outcome of peace talks.
It’s possible that the president concluded Turkey will be a more valuable ally than the Kurds in the post-ISIS environment, and that he received private assurances from Erdogan that might bolster U.S. leverage. But there’s little the Turks can deliver on the battlefield or at the negotiating table — certainly in comparison to the real powers in Syria: Russia and Iran. Further, it is not clear how the administration will implement the end of arms supplies to the Kurds. Depending on how it’s done, it could have either a minor or major impact on the Kurdish militia’s combat capabilities — and could further inflame Turkish anti-Americanism if Washington is seen as walking back from this commitment.
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In short, the whole affair suggests an administration still at war with itself on Syria; that has very few ideas on how to deal with the post-ISIS environment; and that, having seemingly stripped itself of the option to arm the Kurds, has no real assets to be a player in an arena dominated by Russia and Iran.
Ironically, however, even though Trump may have fumbled the call, the outcome nonetheless serves America’s interests. That's because the U.S. has no vital interests in Syria that would justify committing the resources that would be required to roll back Iranian influence there.
The conflict in Syria does not threaten the free flow of oil from the Middle East. The U.S. and the anti-ISIS coalition have achieved a major success in degrading and containing the jihadist threat in Syria. And any terrorist attack inside the U.S. is likely to be of the homegrown or lone-wolf variety, rather than organized, planned, directed and funded by ISIS central. And as long as the nuclear agreement with Iran remains intact, at least for now Teheran won’t be able to emerge as regional hegemon with a nuclear weapon. The Israelis are more than capable of taking care of their own security in the neighborhood.
On North Korea, the cacophony of confusing and contradictory statements from the president and his advisers has made a devilish problem even more difficult to manage. In Syria, an off-message president has, luckily, produced a less damaging and perhaps more felicitous result.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator, is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Follow him on Twitter: aarondmiller2. Richard Sokolsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served in the State Department for 37 years.