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U.S. troop withdrawal is a betrayal

Turkish police detain supporters of the Pro Kurdish

Turkish police detain supporters of the Pro Kurdish party People's Democtaric Party (HDP) during a protest against the ongoing Turkish military operation in Northern Syria against Kurdish forces, in Istanbul, Turkey on Thursday. Credit: ERDEM SAHIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/ERDEM SAHIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

On Wednesday, Turkish forces bombed their way into northern Syria and attacked the Syrian Democratic Front — America’s ally since 2014 in the fight against ISIS. 

Three days earlier, after a call with Turkey’s proto-authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces partnering with the SDF from northern Syria, effectively green-lighting Turkey’s destabilizing and long-sought assault on U.S. allies. Trump’s rash decision will cause untold casualties; empower Russia, Iran, ISIS, and Syrian President Bashar Assad; send a horrific signal to U.S. allies around the world; and ultimately harm our national security. Disentangling the United States from post-Sept. 11 military engagements is a sound objective, but Trump’s erratic foreign policy endangers American lives. 

The Kurdish-dominated SDF has fought ISIS in Syria with the support of American weapons, logistics and intelligence. The SDF is guarding 11,000 captured ISIS fighters and has suffered almost as many casualties fighting as our proxy force. Withdrawing U.S. troops removed the trip-wire preventing Turkey from attacking its long-standing enemies, the Kurds, and will likely lead to a humanitarian crisis by enabling Turkey to forcibly repatriate millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey into a "safe zone" created by its incursion.

U.S. defense officials have confirmed a halt to counter-ISIS operations in Syria — a tragically humorous reality given Trump’s false claims he had defeated ISIS. If the SDF is forced to choose between repelling Turkish troops or guarding ISIS prisoners, they will likely choose the former.  ISIS thrives in chaos and security vacuums, and a Turkish-Kurdish war in northern Syria could catalyze ISIS’ resurgence.  If nothing else, the decision is another gift to authoritarian regimes and strengthens Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

I was serving in Afghanistan in December when Trump tweeted the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, prompting the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump seemingly did not consult with his own military leaders, let alone our international allies. While he walked-back his announcement, its impacts were felt in Kabul, where NATO allies understandably questioned America’s commitment to our mission and wondered whether America’s Afghan policy could change on a whim. Trump's tweet led our Afghan partners to question our commitment to their security, emboldened extremists, and increased risks to Americans serving in Afghanistan. Why should future partner forces trust America given our treatment of the SDF? 

Trump could have negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. troops in coordination with the Pentagon and our international allies. He could have used Turkey’s NATO membership as leverage to ensure a new front in the Syrian war did not reinvigorate ISIS or embolden Russia and Iran. Instead, he threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it does anything Trump considers “off limits,” simultaneously enabling Erdogan’s gambit while threatening Turkey. Again, Trump has ceded American leadership  to the benefit of autocratic leaders ready to seize upon the vacuum and destabilization created by the “Tweet of Damocles” hanging over us all. 

Jack Harrington, of Stony Brook, served as a U.S. Navy officer in Afghanistan from 2018-2019. He  is a fellow at The Truman National Security Project. His views are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.