Just weeks ago, aides to President Donald Trump unveiled a task force charged with preventing ethnic cleansing, genocide and other mass atrocities — and holding accountable the perpetrators of such crimes around the world.
The effort was driven in part by Congress, but aides cast it as part of Trump’s “comprehensive approach” to human rights. “We’re very excited about this,” one senior administration official said in a mid-September briefing that drew little attention.
Now, Trump himself faces the prospect of a mass atrocity directly following his decisions.
By suddenly pulling U.S. troops from northeast Syria, analysts say Trump has left the Kurdish population there — including many who fought as U.S. allies against the Islamic State terrorist group — vulnerable to invading Turkish forces. Trump didn’t help his case when, in a nod to Turkey’s view that many Kurds are terrorists, he said the Turks needed the area “cleaned out.”
Trump’s troop pullout, coming so soon after the launch of the atrocity prevention initiative, is the latest illustration of how the Republican president is often out of sync with his own administration’s stated priorities. The pullout is likely to further confuse U.S. allies about America’s reliability, while potentially emboldening would-be war criminals.
“The first rule of atrocity prevention is do no harm,” said the International Crisis Group’s Stephen Pomper, who handled similar efforts under the Obama administration. Trump’s actions in northeast Syria, he said, “seemed to maximize chaos and put civilians in unnecessary risk.”
As a 120-hour cease-fire expired Tuesday, U.S. lawmakers, rights activists and others feared that the worst is yet to come for the Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities who had created a semi-safe haven in northeast Syria. The Turkish incursion already has displaced more than 100,000 people.
Videos posted by various media outlets showed Kurds pelting exiting U.S. military vehicles with rotten fruit and stones, accusing America of betraying them. And hours before the cease-fire ended, Russia and Turkey announced they’d work together to remove Kurdish fighters from the area, a declaration that deeply alarmed rights activists.
Inside the Trump administration, officials are watching in a daze, unsure of what they can say even to each other. How to protect the Kurds and other groups in the affected territory has been a topic of discussion at a variety of levels in the administration.
“The Syria thing is a great example of where the president does something, and everyone has to sit around a room and figure out how to make it happen, and no one wants to say it’s stupid,” an administration official said.
Administration staffers intend to monitor northeast Syria to catalog any atrocities in the coming days, the official said. But there’s uncertainty as to whether Trump will support them if they call for holding accountable any possible perpetrators, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In theory, that could include demanding that accused perpetrators face international justice for offenses such as “crimes against humanity.” But the U.S. president is so mercurial that Erdogan or others could convince him “well, this happens in war,” the administration official said.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to offer comment for this story.
As is often the case on human rights writ large, Trump has sent mixed signals about what he will tolerate in Syria.
He already has imposed sanctions on top aides to Erdogan and warned of additional economic penalties on other Turkish officials who “may be involved in serious human rights abuses.” His administration also has announced millions of dollars in aid packages for people caught in the conflict in Syria.
Yet he’s also expressed sympathy for the Turkish fears that the Kurdish fighters in Syria have a grander plan that aligns with those of Kurdish separatists in Turkey: to carve out their own homeland. Turkey views the separatists as terrorists and has fought them for years on its territory.
Trump also has repeatedly dissed the Kurds, a population that has lost thousands of lives in the U.S.-backed battle against the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
“We never agreed to, you know, protect the Kurds,” Trump said Monday. “We fought with them for three and a half to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”
Many observers believe that, through military operations, resettlement of Syrian refugees and other tactics, Erdogan wants to change the demographics of the Syrian land that borders Turkey to diminish Kurdish power. Such a goal seriously raises the risk of mass violence, analysts say.
“Erdogan’s intentions are clear: an ethnic cleansing mission in northeastern Syria at the expense of broader regional stability, including the fight against [the Islamic State], and of partnership and cooperation with the United States and other NATO allies,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a hearing Tuesday.
Preventing mass atrocities has long been a U.S. priority dating to the Holocaust, although America’s record on the issue — think Rwanda and Darfur, among other cases — is spotty at best.
President Barack Obama declared the prevention of mass atrocities a “core national security interest.” He established the Atrocities Prevention Board — a group of U.S. officials from various agencies tasked with watching for warning signs of potential mass killings to help divert them.
The board had mixed success: It’s thought to have driven more attention and resources to under-scrutinized parts of the world, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, where its efforts may have helped contain violence linked to election-related disputes.
But the half-million killed in Syria’s civil war, as well as crackdowns in countries such as Myanmar, raised questions about the board’s effectiveness. Obama’s refusal to insert U.S. troops to fight against the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar Assad added to the complications.
By the time Trump took over, bipartisan legislative efforts were in the works to make preventing atrocities a legally codified priority for the U.S. government. Even on its own, though, the Trump administration nodded to the importance of the issue.
“We will hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable,” stated Trump’s official National Security Strategy, dated December 2017 and signed by the president.
Remnants of the Atrocities Prevention Board also sporadically met during Trump’s first couple of years, though at relatively low levels, according to a former National Security Council official. It was highly unlikely Trump even knew the board existed, the official said. “It never would have bubbled up that high.”
Still, plenty of people inside the administration — including Trump political appointees, not just career staffers — supported the general idea animating the atrocities prevention effort.
They included Vice President Mike Pence and others who saw much of atrocity prevention through the lens of religious freedom, a key issue for the many evangelical Christians in Trump’s electoral base. The Trump administration even made a point of reiterating an Obama-era declaration that Christians, Yazidis and other religious groups were the victims of genocide at the hands of Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
At the same time, the administration was unable to prevent — and at some levels seemed surprised by — what it later labeled an “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar in 2017. That crackdown — the worst by far in several years of crackdowns, including under Obama — killed thousands and led more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, congressional efforts to make atrocity prevention a priority moved ahead, according to people who monitored the issue. For human rights activists, it was important to get atrocity prevention codified so that its importance didn’t rely on who happened to be president.
In January of this year, Trump signed the result of one such effort: the bipartisan “Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act.”
The act endorsed the idea of an entity like the Atrocities Prevention Board. Its many other elements included requiring that U.S. diplomats be trained on spotting warning signs of coming atrocities and that governing administration issue regular reports on its atrocity prevention efforts.
Although the Trump administration has built on what the Obama team left in place, it’s also made some changes. For one thing, it went with different branding. Instead of keeping the Atrocities Prevention Board, the Trump team decided to call their version the “Atrocity Early Warning Task Force.”
Much of the work in the atrocity prevention space is classified — including the use of intelligence reports about conditions in global hotspots — so U.S. officials are limited in what they can say.
When asked how the Trump approach differed from the Obama approach, the senior official briefing reporters in September said, with little explanation, that the task force will “operate within a regional setting a little bit more.” That may have been a reference to divisions at the State Department and the National Security Council that focus on specific regions of the world.
It’s not clear how aware Trump is of his administration’s atrocity prevention policy. His admirers, however, say he’s shown that he is willing to, at the very least, punish perpetrators.
They point out that he launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime after determining it had used chemical weapons. They also note that it was under Trump that the U.S. sanctioned military officials in Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis. Trump also has levied sanctions on a slew of alleged human rights violators worldwide using what’s known as the Global Magnitsky Act.
But detractors say Trump’s targeting of human rights violators has been exceptionally selective, often driven by political convenience. More than most modern presidents, Trump has made it clear he won’t slap countries for human rights abuses if he views it as counter to U.S. interests.
One example: Trump has declined to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite the Saudi government’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been living in the United States.
While Trump has imposed sanctions on other Saudi officials over the killing, he excused not targeting bin Salman in part because the Saudi government is a major purchaser of U.S. arms.
Turkey offers a similar dilemma. It is a fellow member of NATO. It is located in an area of geo-strategic importance. The United States is also believed to base some of its global nuclear architecture in Turkey.
Human rights activists, however, say there’s already evidence that Turkey is ignoring international law in Syria, and that Trump can’t afford to look away.
“We’ve documented war crimes that have been committed already,” said Philippe Nassif, a top official with Amnesty International USA. “This could be the beginning of a larger trend of ethnic cleansing in northeastern Syria.”