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Trump Is Trying to Lose in Syria

The limited successes that have been made in Syria in recent years have come not because of the president’s actions, but despite them.
September 7, 2020
Featured Image
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he walks away after a news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the East Room of the White House on November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. The two leaders had a meeting in the Oval Office before speaking to the media at the news conference. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump bragged at the Republican convention that he “obliterated” ISIS “100 percent.” This victory has come despite Trump’s meddling, rather than as a result of it. In fact, he’s made many serious mistakes—and the sacrifice of others has camouflaged his blunders. For three years, Trump’s incompetence and affection for regional strongmen have endangered American lives and interests.

Last month, even as Trump rehearsed his convention speech, four Americans were wounded during a confrontation with Russian forces in Syria. In the wake of Trump’s partial withdrawal from Syria last year, several nation-states and armed groups now struggle for territory—Russians, Syrians, Turks, Kurds, and Americans have dangerous encounters along Syria’s highways, jostling for regional control. In the most recent case, Russian vehicles charged at an American convoy, colliding with a U.S. vehicle at high speed. Northern Syria today is a gerrymandered mess, with different forces holding territory purely based on wherever they stood when Trump changed policy via tweet.

In that jumbled terrain, Trump’s mismanagement has unthinkingly put Americans at risk, again and again.

There’s been a clear pattern for Trump’s blunders in Syria: pro-authoritarian tweets from the White House, creating perilous experiences for American troops.

Starting in 2017, Turkish-backed forces have continually shot at American patrols in northern Syria. U.S. troops sat exposed and outmatched in the town of Manbij, without the clear support of their own commander-in-chief, as Trump never condemned the treacherous behavior from a NATO ally. As we now know, Turkish president Recep Erdogan spoke to Trump as often as twice a week during this period. It’s unclear whether Trump was afraid, smitten, or some of each. I was an Army Officer deployed to northern Syria in late 2017. I would check Trump’s Twitter feed before our morning intelligence briefing to figure out what our policy was that day, and I was usually caught by surprise—as were our Kurdish partners.

Trump’s dance with Erdogan had terrible strategic consequences last fall, when Erdogan convinced the president suddenly to abandon America’s Kurdish partners who had been so instrumental in the fight against ISIS—leading to fighting that killed hundreds of loyal Kurdish soldiers. Rather than imploring Turkey not to harm our local allies, the Kurds, Trump publicly suggested the two sides duke it outlike two kids in a lot.

The next year, with ISIS on the run, Trump’s soft spot for Vladimir Putin jeopardized not just U.S. lives but world stability. In late 2017, Trump tweeted that American hawks—or “fools” as he dubbed them—should trust Putin to help U.S. efforts in Syria. Putin evidently decided that Trump’s weak words were an invitation to test the limits of American policy. Months later, Russian paramilitary forces brazenly crossed the Euphrates River into American territory.

Called The Wagner Group, these forces represent an unofficial arm of the Russian state. Rather than getting their orders through the chain of command of the Russian Army, which has its own traditions, protocols, and processes, the Wagner Group answers directly to the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who owes personal—rather than institutional—loyalty to Putin. Sending a large force of Wagner mercenaries charging at Americans was not some sort of accident—Russian government officials apparently granted the militia permission to conduct the attack days in advance. This represented an obvious hostile act towards U.S. special forces in the area. In a little-covered battle reminiscent of the Cold War, Americans on the ground responded with airstrikes that killed dozens of Russian mercenaries. The event could have led to a significant escalation between the United States and Russia.

Russia’s aggression towards U.S. forces continues to this day. There have been routine hostile clashes between U.S. and Russian army troops over the past few months. This represents an escalation, of sorts—Putin is now willing to send uniformed Russian soldiers charging dangerously at American convoys. These have come because of Trump’s bungled semi-withdrawal from Syria, leaving the country’s affairs even more convoluted than they were a year ago. There hasn’t yet been major fighting between U.S. and Russian regulars, but with continued erratic guidance from this administration, an escalation might be inevitable.

Thankfully, no Americans have been killed in these attacks—though there are likely similar events that haven’t emerged in the press, and it’s conceivable that deaths of American special forces or intelligence personnel wouldn’t be public information. And in light of Trump’s closed-door statements about U.S. military personnel—describing them as “suckers” and “losers”—we shouldn’t expect him to prioritize American lives.

We should be alarmed. Trump’s handling of this conflict indicates the grave danger he presents as commander-in-chief. His actions have undermined American alliances, jeopardized NATO, and made it more difficult for the military to find loyal partners in conflict zones. Any hostile encounter with a NATO partner like Turkey represents a threat to the world order. Further deference to Putin weakens American interest.

Trump, of course, points to our Syrian intervention as a glorious triumph. In many ways, it is. But who exactly deserves the credit for the defeat of ISIS? Credit the Kurds or our fellow coalition members who fought and died in large numbers in the fight against ISIS. Credit diplomats like Brett McGurk, who organized and maintained a coalition of the willing to combat a moral abomination. Credit Defense Secretary James Mattis for holding the line against the president’s worst instincts.

Syria has been in the world’s spotlight for the entire duration of Trump’s presidency. But our limited successes there have been despite his actions, not because of them—and if we find ourselves with him as commander-in-chief for four more years, we should expect more cowardice and capitulation at the expense of U.S. interests and lives in the Middle East and beyond.

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman was a captain in the U.S. Army and is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School.