Now, with Turkey launching its expected offensive against the Kurds, Trump has basically confirmed that this is the U.S. stance.
In a new statement, Trump said that the United States “does not endorse” the operation and has “made it clear" that it’s a "bad idea.” The president’s statement added that Turkey had promised to avoid a humanitarian crisis and would be held “responsible” for ensuring that all Islamic State fighters remain in prison.
That’s a reference to fears that this decision could revive the Islamic State, because the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are holding thousands of ISIS fighters — and no one knows what will happen to those prisoners if the SDF is overrun by the Turkish military.
“We continue to monitor the situation closely,” Trump concluded. Translation: Go ahead, but don’t make us look bad in the process.
There are all kinds of questions about how this decision was made. And House Democrats will hopefully try to answer them.
Democrats will examine the decision
During an interview with this blog, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the committee would be examining Trump’s decision, which Schiff described as “impulsive and dangerous.”
Schiff noted that the Intelligence Committee has regularly focused on the region, on the threat posed by ISIS, on the position there of U.S. troops and that of our Kurdish allies, and tensions involving Turkey.
“We are briefed and receive reports on these subjects constantly, and we will be looking into what this latest decision by the president means, in terms of our national security and the likely consequences on the ground,” Schiff told us, as well as whether it would mean “further destabilization of the region.”
“We will be poring over the intelligence to determine what steps Congress might need to take to protect American interests in light of this reckless action by the president,” Schiff continued, adding that this would be pursued “as part of our oversight responsibility.”
We now know that Turkey has begun a major offensive into northern Syria aimed at crushing the SDF, the Kurdish-led force that has been fighting ISIS in cooperation with the United States. While Turkey considers the Kurdish groups to be terrorists, the Kurds are long-standing allies who appear once again to have been sold out by a U.S. administration.
We also know this move came about in an unusual way. Typically a decision such as this — with potentially catastrophic consequences for a U.S. ally and unpredictable results throughout the region — would be extensively discussed within the national security and foreign policy apparatus first.
What’s more, the outraged response to it was unusually bipartisan. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared that the move would “abandon” the Kurds to “slaughter” by the Turks and “taints our reputation all over the world.” And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a stanch Trump ally, warned that ISIS would reemerge.
What might oversight into this decision look like?
Joshua Geltzer, a counterterrorism official at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017, told us that congressional scrutiny could establish what, precisely, the intelligence told Trump the potential consequences of it might be (before he went ahead and did it anyway).
“It would be useful to try to show that the U.S. government was witting that if allowed, Turkey was going to do exactly what it’s doing today,” Geltzer said. He added that the intelligence would likely show that ISIS “is trying to reemerge, and that we need Syrian Kurds to remain our partners if we’re going to prevent those gains from being made.”
Of course, recent events have suggested that the White House isn’t going to make congressional oversight easy. But here’s an area in which Republicans might also throw their weight behind such oversight.
“I have to think that the vehemence of the Republican reaction against this rash decision by the president reflects a growing level of anxiety among Republicans that the president’s decision-making is becoming even more dangerously erratic,” Schiff told us.
Trump has tried to cast the move as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to end our “forever wars” in the Middle East. But what really drove his decision is cloudy indeed, and calls out for more explication.
And even if Trump doesn’t want to start a new war in the Middle East, that doesn’t mean he isn’t perfectly capable of creating a new catastrophe there.