The Turkish Army rolled across the border into northeastern Syrian last week, beginning a campaign to clear the border region of Kurdish fighters. The 50–100 U.S. troops previously in the area withdrew on President Trump's order, leaving their erstwhile Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the tender mercies of the Turks. Dozens have been killed, and an estimated 160,000 civilians have fled the fighting. Trump dispatched all of his national security heavyweights to attempt to find a resolution: National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are all in Ankara. Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected calls for a ceasefire.
The reaction to Trump's pullback has been immediate and nearly unanimous. Pundits denounced Trump for betraying the "ally" who had defeated ISIS, albeit with ample American aid. Special Forces soldiers who fought beside the SDF told reporters about their shame. Congress, despite never authorizing the war in the first place, is incensed about any potential U.S. drawdown in Syria. But this rejection of the Kurds was always going to happen sooner or later. Though Trump appears to have left the Kurds in a particularly peremptory and callous manner, the real issue is the way in which America habitually acquires, arms, and then abandons partners of convenience.
The United States chose not to employ many of its own troops in the campaign against ISIS – a war that was existential for Kurds but not for Americans. Outsourcing America’s fighting has consequences though. Despite the assurances of both politicians and military cheerleaders who write books with titles like “One Hundred Victories,” proxy warfare has ample costs. Many of these are borne by the proxies themselves, as Syria’s Kurds have now been reminded.