Yesterday, The Atlantic ran a piece that I wrote about Trump’s handling of Syria. I argue that it encapsulates all of the reasons why Trump is really, really bad at foreign policy.
Because Trump’s approach to foreign policy is too often reactive, he finds himself turning to coercive diplomacy to clean up his messes—to try to put the proverbial horse back in the barn. This is exactly what’s happening with Turkey. Instead of trying to deter Erdoğan from invading Syria, Trump resorted to punitive sanctions after the incursion had already begun, after people were dying, after U.S. troops were trying to evacuate, and after the Russian-Syrian-SDF agreement. (Trump’s pursuit of sanctions is almost certainly a tactical response to domestic political pressure, rather than a developed contingency plan.) The imposition of sanctions carries greater political risks for everyone concerned than if Trump had read his talking points, pushed back against Erdoğan’s demands, and left American troops in place. Indeed, some reports suggest that Erdoğan was surprised by Trump’s capitulation—that Erdoğan believed he was opening a negotiation rather than issuing an ultimatum.
Some hours after the piece ran, Pence announced a “ceasefire” agreement with Turkey. Essentially, the United States agreed to all of Erdoğan’s demands.
Irritated by White House threats over the past week, Erdogan had prepared for a confrontational meeting, but the mood softened when it became clear the U.S. officials were asking only for what the Turks regarded as token concessions. In return for a brief pause in fighting, there would be no U.S. sanctions and no requirement for a Turkish withdrawal.
The request for a temporary cease-fire seemed to be “face-saving, for the U.S. side,” the official said. “It was as easy a negotiation as we’ve ever had,” the official said.
This isn’t surprising. Negotiations were never about reversing the results of Trump’s impulsive decision nearly two weeks ago. The goal was to save face. That doesn’t mean the agreement, if it holds, is completely worthless. It will probably save some lives, which is a good thing. And at least Erdoğan’s is on record promising not to ethnically cleanse his buffer zone.
Of course, Trump has been pitching the agreement as the most amazing achievement in the history of humankind. I exaggerate only slightly.
The “people” who have been trying to make this deal were the Turkish government. Trump said “yes” on October 6, and he said “yes” again on October 17, but with Erdoğan agreeing to take his buffer zone without violence if the SDP agrees to give it to him without a fight. If this reminds you of how Trump handled North Korea, that’s because it’s pretty much the same thing, but with more people killed and, probably, greater reputational cost.
As of this morning, the Guardian is reporting some sporadic violence, but that’s not atypical in these kinds of circumstances.
Fighting is continuing on the border between Syria and Turkey, according to witnesses, despite an announcement from the US vice-president, Mike Pence, that Ankara had agreed to a five-day ceasefire to allow the US supervision of the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the area.
Intermittent artillery fire and ground clashes continued in the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Friday morning, one of the two main targets of the nine-day-old Turkish offensive, as the Turkish military and Syrian rebel proxies struggled to wrest control of the town from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF says that the agreement only covers a narrow band of territory. It’s still not clear to me if the “ceasefire” applies to Turkish-backed militias. We’ll see.
As I conclude the article:
Trump may wind up reversing some of the damage of his Syrian missteps. But even if Trump forces Erdoğan to capitulate, he’s unlikely to walk away with any net gains. Trump certainly won’t reap any reputational advantage. Trump’s Syria policy, like pretty much all of Trump’s international endeavors, will likely leave the United States worse off than if he had simply maintained the status quo.
Someone will come out in better shape, however: America’s rivals, Russia in particular. Jeb Bush said that Trump would be a “chaos” president, and that’s one reason Moscow wanted him to win. Yes, Moscow came to hope that Trump would deliver on a new grand bargain favorable to Russian goals and interests, such as a return to spheres of influence and an abandonment of American liberal ordering. But his victory alone, the Kremlin wagered, would throw wrenches into America’s global advantage in alliances and partnerships. That bet has paid off.
Note: in case you missed it, Turkish proxies are being credibly accused of having used white phosphorous.