President Donald Trump's decision to abandon the Kurds by withdrawing US troops in northeastern Syria gives a greenlight to Turkey to launch a military operation there and sends a dangerous message to US allies that they could be abandoned at a moment's notice despite promises and sacrifices made.
The Trump administration abruptly made the announcement on Sunday after the president spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the phone, and US troops began pulling out of the region by Monday morning, according to witnesses cited by The New York Times.
The Kurds have been a key ally and bore the brunt of the US-campaign against ISIS.
Along these lines, a spokesperson for the the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which occupies northeastern Syria, described the move as a "stab in the back" after previously receiving "assurances from the US that it would not allow any Turkish military operations against the region."
The US urged the SDF it to dismantle defensive positions on the Syrian side of the border that served as a deterrent to a Turkish military operation, with the promise that the US would not greenlight any such incursion. The Kurds followed through on this, but the US did not.
Erdogan views the Kurdish forces as a threat — with a specific animus toward the leading fighting force in the SDF, the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG are a fierce group of warriors, but they're outmatched by Turkey's military.
The YPG has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish government views as a terrorist organization. Since the mid-1980s, the PKK has waged a violent campaign against the Turkish government as part of a broader effort to establish an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. Based on its association with the PKK, the YPG is seen as a terrorist affiliate by the Turkish government, even as it played a central role in crushing ISIS's so-called caliphate.
The Kurds now face a potential massacre, and the SDF on its official Twitter account made clear how betrayed it feels. The SDF added that it lost 11,000 fighters in the campaign against ISIS, going on to say "we are determined to defend our land at all costs."
—Coordination & Military Ops Center - SDF (@cmoc_sdf) October 7, 2019
Correspondingly, one Syrian Kurdish official told NBC News: "The Americans are traitors. They have abandoned us to a Turkish massacre. We can no longer fight against ISIS and have to defend ourselves. This could allow ISIS to return to the region."
'We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back'
Trump's move to pull US troops from northeastern Syria falls in line with his isolationist "America First" philosophy, but goes against the advice of senior Pentagon and intelligence officials. When Trump in December announced plans to withdraw US troops from Syria, it prompted the resignation of James Mattis as secretary of defense and the widespread backlash ultimately led the president to pump the brakes on pulling out.
His decision to move forward now has catalyzed similar criticism and outcry, including from former administration officials who warn about the implications for other US partnerships.
Trump's former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on Monday tweeted, "We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend."
Similarly, Trump's former top envoy in the fight against ISIS, Brett McGurk, excoriated Trump on the decision.
McGurk in a tweet said, "Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm's way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call."
John Sipher, who served in the CIA for nearly 30 years as a clandestine-services officer, said that the decision suggests the US is "about screwing our allies, partners and friends" and tells allies "don't trust America, even if you shed blood on their behalf."
'We have sent the most dangerous signal possible'
Beyond eroding US credibility with allies, there are are also concerns among some congressional lawmakers about the message this sends to US adversaries about what they can get away with.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key ally for Trump in Congress who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Monday tweeted, "By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible — America is an unreliable ally and it's just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways."
Graham went on to say that the withdrawal represents a "shot in the arm to the bad guys" and is "devastating for the good guys."
"This decision to abandon our Kurdish allies and turn Syria over to Russia, Iran, and Turkey will put every radical Islamist on steroids," Graham said, suggesting that the US will now struggle to recruit allies in fighting terrorism.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump's decision "positively sinister."
"The US convinced the Kurds to destroy ISIS for us, causing massive Kurd casualties. Then we conned the Kurds into dismantling their defenses, promising to protect them," Murphy said. "Now Trump invites the Turks into Syria, green lighting them to wipe out the Kurds."