Unless Trump is called to account, expect more policy lurches like on Syria's Kurds

Michael H Fuchs
Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s decision to abandon America’s partners in the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is yet another illustration of how the president’s rash foreign policy results in disastrous consequences.

Related: The Guardian view on Trump and Syria: damage has been done | Editorial

To be sure️, this is a complicated foreign policy challenge. The small US military presence in Syria is not sustainable forever. Still, US officials argued it’s necessary to fight the Islamic State, protect our Kurdish partners and carve out a safe place for civilians amid the ongoing Syrian disaster. If the SDF-liberated areas could be stabilized, it was hoped, the US presence might provide leverage to try to end the war diplomatically. Whether one supports the mission or wants to wash America’s hands of the Middle East, this is a tough call.
But none of this complexity matters because Trump can’t make a coherent policy decision. Rather than craft a withdrawal plan, Trump made the decision on a whim after a call with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leaving American allies and interests out to dry.

America’s Kurdish partners are in danger. The SDF have led the fight against Isis and suffered 11,000 killed. But without US help, the Kurds now face a deadly onslaught from both Turkey and a resurgent Isis. When they learned about Trump’s policy reversal, some reportedly called Americans “traitors”.

The fight against Isis will be crippled. Despite Trump’s claims, Isis continues its insurgency. The SDF was the heart of the strategy to keep the pressure on Isis, leading raids, manning checkpoints and stabilizing liberated areas. The Kurds will now be forced to defend against a Turkish attack, and Isis will exploit the opening to regroup. More immediately, the Kurds are holding thousands of Isis fighters because no one else would take responsibility. These fighters may escape or be released if the Kurds are forced to flee a Turkish offensive.

America’s closest allies were caught completely by surprise. Trump didn’t warn the UK or France, even though both countries also have troops on the ground.

This move will also further confuse US policy towards Turkey. While Turkey is a Nato ally, it has become more authoritarian under Erdoğan, and the US-Turkey alliance is on the rocks. But the US can’t pick a policy: it is threatening to sanction Turkey for buying Russian military equipment; but Trump gave Turkey the green light to massacre US partners; after announcing his Syria decision, Trump tweeted that if Turkey does anything “off limits”, Trump would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey …”, which was followed by praise of Turkey and an invitation to Washington for Erdoğan.

Russia and Syria are the real winners. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has long supported Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brutal war, intentionally targeting civilians, schools and hospitals. The Syrian regime will now have even more of a free hand to seek its retribution, and Russia will reap the benefits. Trump has a knack for making decisions that help Russia and hurt the US.

The decision was not even coordinated within the US government. The secretary of defense quickly came out with a statement – which was later deleted – trying to walk back Trump’s statement that Turkey could start an operation against the Kurds. And the immediate reaction on the ground in Syria appeared to be confusion. The US – again, under Trump – looks incompetent.

And yet, none of this is surprising. Trump doesn’t make policy decisions considering normal interests like those above – he has impulses that steer the most powerful country the world has ever known.

Trump’s foreign policy has been so disastrous that the House of Representatives is in the midst of an impeachment inquiry over the fact that the president attempted to extort a foreign power – Ukraine – to fabricate smears against Trump’s domestic political rival. Trump then also publicly asked China – which is supposed to be America’s greatest geopolitical rival – to help create a scandal for Trump’s opponent.

Despite all of this, removing the US military presence at some point might actually be the right call. But not like this, and not with these consequences

So what caused this particular disaster? Was it Trump’s self-admitted conflict of interest with Turkey? Perhaps Erdoğan offered to make up dirt on Trump’s opponents? Maybe Trump asked him to? Or maybe it was simply what a National Security Council source told Newsweek: “President Trump was definitely out-negotiated.”

Despite all of this, removing the US military presence at some point might actually be the right call. But not like this, and not with these consequences.

Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of this episode is watching Trump supporters in Congress express anger about the move at the same moment they defend Trump’s abuse of power in trying to extort a foreign government to help Trump’s campaign. His congressional supporters try to act as though they care about national security by beating their chests over their willingness to keep American troops fighting abroad, but their hypocrisy makes clear they only speak out when they think it won’t hurt them politically.

This is American foreign policy under Trump. Every day is a new catastrophe, but the same story – a self-absorbed president who makes policy by whim and abuses his power to advance his personal interests while sacrificing those of America and its friends. And too few of America’s leaders in positions to stop Trump are willing to do what’s right. So Trump will continue to make more decisions like the Syria one, continue to ask more countries to help his political interests and continue to undermine national security – until Congress acts to hold him accountable.