The Dangerous Door That Trump Has Opened in Syria

Barack Obama often compared the presidency to a relay race, where he took the baton from a range of people who came before, ran his best leg, and then passed the baton onto his successor. He built on that analogy while talking to Max Fisher about the Iran nuclear agreement, where the topic of Nixon’s opening with China came up (emphasis mine).

To hear him draw a connection between the nuclear deal and China’s transformation, then, was striking. It suggested that Obama, though he has repeatedly insisted he does not expect the character of Iran’s regime to change, does see it as a possibility, one potentially significant enough that it evokes, at least in his mind, President Nixon’s historic trip to China.

At the same time, the lesson Obama seemed to draw from the comparison was not that he, too, was on the verge of making history, but rather that transformations like China’s under Deng, opportunities like Nixon’s trip, can have both causes and consequences that are impossible to foresee. His role, he said, was to find “openings” for such moments.

All of that wasn’t simply a profoundly wise view of the presidency, it demonstrates the ability to put ones actions in the context of history and make decisions that open possibilities for the future.

We now have a president who is deeply ignorant about history and only considers his own immediate interests when making decisions. With Trump’s recent actions in Syria, it has become clear that a very different kind of opening has occurred—one that future presidents will be dealing with for decades to come.

We are at the very early stages of seeing what some of the ramifications of Trump’s actions might be. The message sent from our Kurdish allies in northern Syria is that they feel betrayed by the United States, indicating that we are no longer a country that can be trusted to stand with our allies. Instead, the Kurds have weighed the costs of the Turkish invasion and made an agreement with Assad.

Without U.S. backing and amid mounting chaos, the Kurds appeared to face the choice between a deadly confrontation with the militarily superior Turkish forces — or a deal with the Assad regime.

By Sunday, the SDF had opted for the second option: They announced a deal with the Syrian government to allow forces loyal to the regime to enter its territory. By Monday, Syrian government troops were raising flags in the towns close to the Turkish-Syrian border…

As Rick Noack writes, that is a move that primarily benefits Russia, given that Putin has been Assad’s staunchest ally. The fact that the Kurds are now turning to Assad and Putin for assistance demonstrates how desperate they have become.

Russia began to intervene militarily in Syria on Assad’s behalf in the fall of 2015. The siege of Aleppo, which was then controlled by rebel forces, was likely a war crime. On Sunday, the New York Times released a report documenting that the Russian Air Force intentionally targeted hospitals as part of the bombing campaign. As Max Fisher wrote, it was a calculated move on Putin’s part.

The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.

That is how Assad and Putin “play” politics—by committing war crimes. Now, because of Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, they have been forced to make a deal with the devil and turned to Assad for protection from the Turkish invasion. Keep in mind that this is the regime that used chemical weapons on its own people—something the Kurds experienced in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

What I haven’t seen addressed at this point is how Turkey will respond to the presence of Syrian forces. If fighting breaks out between the two countries, it will present an impossible situation for NATO, given that Turkey is a member that the rest of the alliance is committed to defend. As the U.S. considers sanctions against Turkey and our NATO allies condemn their incursion into Syria, Vladimir Putin has spent time courting Erdogan, creating a potential wedge in the alliance.

But it isn’t just NATO that is affected. We could be witnessing the beginning of a realignment in the Middle East, especially considering the meetings described by Adam Taylor on Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Riyadh on Monday for his first state visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in more than a decade, emphasizing not only coordination between three of the biggest oil producers in the world but also Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East…

It is part of a strategy that puts Moscow at the center of Middle East politics. Putin recently announced that he intends to visit another U.S. ally, Israel, early next year. Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia to meet with Putin last month, just days before a bitterly contested election

Russia ultimately remains far weaker than the United States in a variety of ways. Its economy has suffered greatly under sanctions, and it has suffered a number of humiliating military setbacks in recent years; even its vaunted S-400 system remains untested in real life.

But with longtime partners Syria’s Kurds finding themselves at odds with Trump’s Middle East plans, and even those with many friends in Washington such as Israel’s Netanyahu unsure of their footing, allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE may see Russia as a more reliable alternative — even if it is opposed to the United States and allied with many of their own rivals.

The least damning explanation for what is happening would be that Putin is playing Trump like a fiddle in order to strengthen his own power and diminish the influence of the United States. But the deeper question is whether Putin is actually directing Trump.

Either way, the Russian president is using every means at his disposal to realign geopolitical alliances in a way that threatens our national security. Americans tend to have short memories, but it is important to note the events of the last week and recognize that the United States will be paying the price for Trump’s malevolence and incompetence for decades to come.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.