Think of Trump’s pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, which has led Tehran to accelerate its enrichment of fissile material and its attacks on neighbors. Or Trump’s love affair with Kim Jong Un, which has allowed the North Korean tyrant to continue developing his nuclear and missile programs while escaping international isolation. (U.S. talks with North Korea broke down again this weekend.) Or Trump’s costly trade war with China, which has no end in sight. Or Trump’s attempts to enlist countries such as Ukraine and Australia in his domestic political vendettas, which places them in an impossible position.
One of the few bright spots in the president’s calamitous foreign policy has been the battle against the Islamic State. Trump inherited from President Barack Obama a sensible strategy which depended on augmenting the Syrian Democratic Forces (primarily Kurdish fighters) with U.S. advisers and air support. The result was the smashing of the Islamic State’s caliphate and the establishment of a U.S.-backed zone in eastern Syria that prevented Bashar al-Assad from extending his rule across the entire country with the help of his Iranian and Russian allies.
Alas, Trump cannot help but mess with success. In December, after a call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he announced a pullout of all U.S. forces from Syria, causing then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, then the senior envoy in the fight against the Islamic State, to resign in disgust. John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, eventually convinced the mercurial president to merely reduce the number of U.S. troops in Syria from 2,000 to fewer than 1,000. Even this move, though not as bad as a complete pullout, has proved costly.
In August, the inspector generals for the State and Defense departments reported that the Islamic State retains 14,000 to 18,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq and is stepping up insurgent operations in both countries. The drawdown of U.S. forces, the inspectors general wrote, “decreased the amount of resources and support available to . . . Syrian partner forces at a time when they need additional reinforcing for counterinsurgency operations against ISIS.”
On Sunday, following another conversation with Erdogan, Trump announced — in what he describes as “my great and unmatched wisdom” — that he is pulling back U.S. forces from northern Syria and would allow Turkish troops to move in. The Turks want to establish a buffer zone in which they can resettle Syrian refugees — and also to push back the Kurdish fighters which, because of their ties to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, are viewed by Ankara as a threat. The Kurds have vowed to resist this Turkish incursion, setting up the possibility that, rather than fighting the remnants of the Islamic State, two U.S. allies will be fighting each other. The Kurds are likely to look for help from Assad and Iran, allowing the United States’ enemies to take advantage of the situation.
The fate of Islamic State detainees remains uncertain. The Kurds are holding 10,000 ISIS fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, in various prisons and are supervising 60,000 of their family members at a displaced persons camp in al-Hol in the northeastern part of the country. The statement issued on Sunday by White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham to explain Trump’s sudden move — which sounded as though it was dictated by Trump himself — showed utter indifference to this critical issue: “The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.”
It’s untrue that the United States was holding these detainees; they are held by the Kurds. But the Kurds may not be able to continue holding them without U.S. support — while also battling the Turkish army. So, because European nations did not want to take back Islamic State detainees — just as the United States did not — the president is risking the release of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. His bizarre threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if prisoners are freed is as empty as most of his ultimatums.
Given his lack of loyalty to anyone not named Trump — and even to some who are — the president will not be troubled by the betrayal of our Kurdish allies who bled and sacrificed to defeat the Islamic State. But the damage to U.S. foreign policy will be incalculable. Trump is rewarding a dictator — Erdogan — who defies the United States by purchasing a S-400 air-defense system from Russia and by ignoring U.S. sanctions against Iran, while punishing valuable and vulnerable allies who have been repeatedly assured by the U.S. military that we will stand with them. This will strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that the United States is an unreliable ally — so better to partner with Russia instead.
As Charles Maurice de Talleyrand said, "This is worse than a crime. It is a mistake.” Trump does less damage when he spews witless insults against Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi.