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President Trump’s Twitter-centric approach to foreign policy has sown utter confusion in northern Syria, following a blitz of erratic messaging in which he appeared to green-light a Turkish assault on an ally, before threatening Turkey if it went “off limits.”
Despite Trump’s threat, Turkey announced on Tuesday it had finished its preparations for a military incursion in northeast Syria against Kurdish forces it considers to be terrorists. As U.S. troops began withdrawing from observation posts near the Turkish border, America’s Kurdish partners were left bracing for a Turkish assault, while Republicans slammed the president for undermining U.S. efforts in the fight against ISIS and abandoning a stalwart ally.
Turkey rattled by Trump threat
Trump’s unexpected announcement late Sunday, that U.S. forces would leave the border region to clear the way for a Turkish offensive, was a bombshell to Kurds and prompted a furious backlash from Republicans. The rebuke from his own party prompted Trump to threaten Turkey via Twitter Monday that he would “obliterate” its economy if it went “off limits” in its offensive.
Ege Seçkin, senior analyst at IHS Markit, told VICE News that the broad Republican condemnation of the withdrawal, coupled with Trump’s threat, could drive Turkey to show restraint in its offensive.
“Turkey may wait a couple of days for the dust to settle in Washington,” said Seçkin, adding that Trump’s threat had a “sobering effect” on Turkish decision-makers.
“Even [Sen.] Lindsey Graham — viewed in Turkey as sympathetic to Turkey’s concerns — joined the chorus in criticizing Trump’s decision.”
Trump threw U.S. policy in Syria into chaos with the sudden announcement late Sunday, following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that U.S. forces in northern Syria were going to leave “the immediate area” ahead of a long-planned Turkish incursion.
The announcement, followed by Trump’s statements that it was “time for us to get out” and let others “figure the situation out,” prompted widespread fears the U.S. was going to completely withdraw from Syria and abandon the Kurds, whom the U.S. has backed as a vital military partner in the fight against ISIS.
But amid a fierce backlash to the statement, including from some of Trump’s staunchest allies, U.S. officials scrambled to insist that Trump had not green-lit a Turkish invasion.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement that the U.S. did not endorse a Turkish invasion, and had warned Turkey that any unilateral action would cause risks. And a Trump administration official said the drawdown would not be a withdrawal of the 1,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria, but would see 50 U.S. troops in the border region targeted by Turkey redeployed elsewhere in Syria “where they aren’t in the crossfire.”
Then, late Monday, in an apparent response to the torrent of criticism, Trump himself pivoted by tweeting an explicit threat to Turkey warning it to show restraint.
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” he tweeted. Last year, the U.S. raised tariffs on Turkish metals, weakening the country's ailing lira.
But, said Seçkin, there was “no transparency on what ‘limits’ President Trump actually agreed on with Erdogan, or whether they spoke of any limits at all.” Asked to expand on his “off limits” comment, Trump said Turkey should “not do anything outside of what we would think is humane.”
Trump’s threat to Turkey made no reference to its treatment of the Kurds. But on Tuesday he tweeted that “in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.”
Kurds fear attack is imminent
Amid the confusion, major questions remain about how far the Turkish operation will extend — or be allowed by the U.S. to extend — into northern Syria. Seçkin said it wasn't clear whether Turkey would be satisfied with seizing territory around the Kurdish-held border city of Tal Abyad, for example, and whether the U.S. would apply pressure to Ankara not to extend the operation further.
“We cannot say for sure yet if this signifies the wholesale abandonment by the U.S. of the Kurds,” said Seçkin.
Kurdish forces, who described Trump’s initial announcement was a “stab in the back,” said that they were expecting an imminent attack as Turkish forces and their proxies mobilized. With Erdogan endorsing a plan to resettle the border area with millions of Syrian refugees currently sheltering in Turkey, the Kurds fear a widespread demographic displacement. But one senior Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, told the Washington Post he hoped that support from the U.S. would somehow survive Trump’s statements.
Trump has vowed twice before to pull out of Syria, but has faced domestic opposition to a total withdrawal, resulting in 1,000 remaining in the country pending a negotiated end to the conflict.
Trump’s erratic messaging over Syria has also left U.S. troops in the dark, according to Brett McGurk, the U.S.’s Special Presidential Envoy to the global coalition against ISIS from 2015 until last year.
"We have people on the ground tonight who are [in Syria] under President Trump's orders and they really have no idea what they're supposed to do,” he told MSNBC Monday. “That is just unacceptable if you're the Commander-in-Chief.”
Cover: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, right, shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (Presidential Press Service/Pool Photo via AP)