Foreign Affairs

A Betrayal Too Far

October 9, 2019
Featured Image
Turkish army soldiers wait near the border before entering Syria, on January 21, 2018 at Hassa, in the Turkish province of Hatay, near the Syrian border. Turkey on January 20 launched operation "Olive Branch" seeking to oust from the Afrin region of northern Syria the YPG which Ankara considers a terror group. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Nothing captures the moral and geopolitical bankruptcy of Donald Trump’s Hobbesian worldview better than his rank betrayal of the Kurds.

Once more, Turkey’s President Erdogan—a knave, but not a fool—demonstrated his hypnotic powers over an American president who is both. Without warning, the White House approved Turkey’s plan to invade territory in northern Syria held by the Kurds, America’s one indispensable ally on the ground in the fight against ISIS. The administration’s announcement of betrayal was bald and explicit: “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces . . . having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”

Trump’s abrupt and stunning act of dereliction startled everyone he should have consulted beforehand: our State Department, Pentagon, intelligence community, allies, key members of Congress—and the Kurds themselves. He discussed this only with the Turkey’s authoritarian, who is determined to quash a fighting force tied to Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. In acceding to Turkish aggression on the basis of a single phone call from a crafty autocrat, Trump contemptuously ignored all advice, and abandoned a painstaking American diplomatic effort to work out an accommodation which would satisfy Turkey’s demands for border security.

Even the normally supine Republicans in the House and Senate seem sickened.

Worse, Trump paraded his strategic stupidity and precipitous treachery in all their solitary splendor. Prior to proclaiming “my great and unmatched wisdom” in mastering the situation unassisted, he remonstrated that the Kurds had been “paid massive amounts of money and equipment” to fight a brutal terrorist regime which—he failed to add—American forces could not subdue alone. With ISIS thus quelled, Trump decided it was time for America to bail out of Syria and leave “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds . . . to figure the situation out.”

America was through, he proudly concluded, with being played for a “sucker.”

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The Kurds might beg to differ. By abandoning them, Trump has left the Kurds in a killing zone between Turkey and a genocidal Syrian regime which they must now embrace at the risk of obliteration.

But perhaps the biggest sucker is Trump himself, manipulated by a self-serving authoritarian into punishing vulnerable allies who believed that America would stand behind them—and who continue to be critical in containing an ISIS threat that could well reconstitute in the wake of Trump’s incompetence.

Erdogan, the New York Times reports, perceived that he could exploit a division between Trump and his military advisors, who wanted a residual force of American troops in Syria to serve as a safeguard for the Kurds, and against ISIS. Their reasons were compelling: according to the New York Times, ISIS still has 18,000 fighters spread across Iraq and Syria, many active in carrying out terrorist operations. Moreover, America has assigned the Kurds responsibility for supervising tens of thousands of captured ISIS members and their families currently in custody.

No more. As if the Middle East was a Monopoly board, Trump has given ISIS a “get out of jail free card.” A Kurdish official told NBC news: “The Americans are traitors. They have abandoned us to a Turkish massacre. We can no longer fight against ISIS and have to defend ourselves. This could allow ISIS to return to the region.”

Brett McGurk, formerly a principal American strategist in Syria, was equally appalled: “This looks to be another reckless decision made without deliberation or consultation following a call with a foreign leader. The White House statement bears no relation to facts on the ground. If implemented, it will significantly increase risks to our personnel, as well as hasten ISIS’s resurgence.”

It was particularly surreal, therefore, that the White House announcement of Trump’s decision treated the problem of captive ISIS fighters as a budgetary problem which Trump cleverly offloaded on the ever-helpful Turks: “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.”


But of course the United States isn’t holding these detainees—the Kurds are. Now they can’t. As for Turkey, McGurk says, “It has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity to manage” ISIS prisoners who could form “the nucleus for a resurgent ISIS.” In short, Trump has licensed the potential release some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists—and at the same time given the Turks freedom to attack our one essential ally. As McGurk writes, “Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. . . . He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”


This terrible decision confirms the zombie-like persistence of Trump’s worst notions. In 2018, McGurk notes, “Trump made a similarly impulsive decision when I was managing the policy.” Then, as now, Trump decided to withdraw American forces from Syria based on a single phone call from Erdogan—precipitating the resignations of both McGurk and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. After a tsunami of protest, Trump allowed a residual American force to remain. But the crisis sparked an exodus of principled advisors and left only spineless enablers in place, such as Mike Pompeo. A man without principles will not resign over principle. Or stop Trump from doing his worst the next time Erdogan calls.

But the consequences mistake transcend empowering ISIS. Or even Erdogan and Assad. With U.S. forces gone, the Iranians can more easily supply the Hezbollah militia it uses to empower the Assad regime, and menace Israel. And the Russians in Syria can act with total impunity, while continuing to manipulate the Turks in their effort to weaken NATO.

All of which underscores Trump’s total obliviousness to geopolitical consequences. Thus unimpeded, the Iranians will be able to thwart U.S. sanctions by taking control of oil fields in eastern Syria, undermining Trump’s stated policy of “maximum pressure.” Most insidiously, perhaps, Trump has abetted Russia by further undermining American alliances and American credibility, continuing his unbroken record of assisting the one man, himself aside, he seems to admire most—Vladimir Putin.

The greatest tragedy, however, is how deeply Trump has invested American foreign policy with the solipsistic inhumanity of a leader who cares for nothing and no one but himself.

Not his country. Nor its allies. Nor the thousands of human beings who stand to be slaughtered by the Turks and, in time, by ISIS.

God help America—and the world that Trump, acting in our name, is abandoning to its most malignant actors.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative, a bipartisan group dedicated to defending the principles of liberal democracy at home and abroad.