Once again, Syria is burning. Turkey and its proxy militias are advancing into area controlled by Kurdish fighters, leading to civilian casualties and reports of atrocities. Chaos abounds, with even the secure handling of dangerous Islamic State prisoners in doubt.
It did not need to be this way.
President Donald Trump enabled the mayhem when he effectively greenlighted the Turkish advance into Syria after an Oct. 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It was an astonishing gamble for U.S. national security interests, unleashing Turkey upon the Kurdish troops who have been America’s key allies in the fight against the caliphate sought by the Islamic State.
Trump is right that Turkey has a long history with the Kurds, a stateless people who have clamored for their own territory. Some have fought for that right within Turkey’s borders. But a near-victory against the vicious Islamic State was won with Kurdish blood. Thousands of Kurds died in combat. They earned the trust and admiration of U.S. troops, some of whom, such as the deputy commander of U.S. Special Forces in the Middle East, have voiced disapproval at America leaving the Kurds behind. There are legitimate concerns that the Islamic State could resume terror operations in the confusion.
Erdogan does not like Kurds in control of Syrian territory on his border. So he is pushing them back, brutally.
Late Monday, as the situation continued its rapid deterioration and Trump faced a bipartisan pushback from Congress including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the president belatedly promised sanctions against Turkish officials. It might be too late to undo his mistake and flip-flopping. Why does Trump have a history of making quick policy decisions in Erdogan’s favor after phone calls with the Turkish leader? Take the December 2018 call when Trump shocked advisers by committing to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. In the call this month, Trump reportedly went off his national security team's script, greenlighting the Turkish incursion.
Erdogan won again. Also winning: Prime Minister Bashar Assad of Syria, the brutal leader who now wins concessions from the Kurds, and Russia. Vladimir Putin expands his influence in the region, while Europe could face more terrorist threats from ISIS.
This setback for America comes amid increasingly fumbling foreign and trade policy dealings involving China, Ukraine, North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran. Trump’s poor decision-making and his unfathomable placating of Putin, along with chaotic staff upheavals, are very worrisome.
We do not disagree with the larger goal of ending military engagements in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean abandoning an ally at the ring of a phone. Foreign policy is difficult. Those who don’t understand that sound like Trump when he heartlessly implies that he wasn’t bothered by the idea of ISIS prisoners now held by the Kurds escaping, because “they will be escaping to Europe."
Trump’s reliable GOP allies should question whether this is how the leader of the free world should think, and what the next phone call will bring. — The editorial board