(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s high-wire act on Syria continues. Even if he manages to climb down without harming the U.S. fight against Islamic State, which is unlikely, he has already done long-lasting damage to broader U.S. interests.
To review: On Monday, Trump declared he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria but said he would hold Turkey accountable if it attacked a safe zone established for Kurdish forces. In another series of tweets on Tuesday morning, the president repeated those goals and reiterated those warnings — and then, for good measure, invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington.
The most optimistic reading of all this would be that Trump has managed to persuade Erdogan to back down. And in fact one senior U.S. official tells me that a full-scale Turkish invasion of northern Syria is off the table for now. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also says he expects Erdogan to make a limited incursion but stop short of a military operation deep into Syrian territory.
Considering the nightmare scenario — Turkey slaughters members of the Kurdish-majority Syrian Defense Forces, or SDF, and the 11,000 Islamic State fighters that the SDF currently detains are allowed to sow chaos — there’s a temptation to be grateful for small favors. Doing so, however, would lose sight of the grave damage Trump’s impetuous statecraft has already wrought.
Start with the war against Islamic State. Trump is correct that these jihadists have lost almost all of their alleged caliphate’s territory in the last three years. That said, Islamic State retains its capability to wage a nasty insurgency, according to a report issued last summer by the inspectors general of the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.
That report was written before Trump briefly gave Turkey a green light to invade the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria. Trump’s Twitter feed alone has already caused those allies to reposition their forces: Two U.S. military officials tell me that Kurdish fighters have started abandoning positions in al-Houl, where there is a camp for female refugees displaced by Islamic State, in order to prepare for a Turkish incursion.
That camp contains many so-called ISIS brides, radicalized women who were separated from male fighters during combat missions. The larger worry is that the makeshift detention facilities constructed in the last two years to hold male Islamic State fighters will be abandoned if the Turks go forward with a full-scale invasion. The U.S. military has contingency plans to secure the highest-value detainees, according to these sources, but many mid-level fighters will probably make it back to the battlefield.
In addition to the threat that SDF fighters will abandon the detention facilities that hold Islamic State fighters, there is also an expectation that the SDF will begin hedging its bets. The Kurdish militias that have aligned with the U.S. since 2014 against Islamic State will now seek protection from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and by extension his foreign backers, Iran and Russia. The Iranians in particular, says Michael Nagata, the recently retired special operations commander for U.S. Central Command, will see a U.S. withdrawal as a strategic opportunity.
Finally, there is the weakness Trump has displayed toward Turkey. Even if he has managed to persuade Turkey to limit its military operations to the border areas — and at this point, even that is unclear — Trump is rewarding Erdogan’s recklessness. In the last six months Erdogan has ignored U.S. and NATO objections to his purchase of a Russian air defense system and tried to steal a municipal election in Istanbul. Now Trump has invited him to the White House.
And that, perhaps, is the most galling legacy of Trump’s Syria policy: He is showing the world how America abandons its friends and rewards its adversaries. That message will resonate even if the worst-case scenario for Syria doesn’t come to pass.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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