Rogin: Trump just destroyed his own Syria strategy
Just last week, two top Trump administration officials publicly defended the U.S. Syria strategy and explained why a Turkish attack on Kurds in northeastern Syria would ruin it completely. Now, everything they were working on is in tatters, and the dangers they warned about are coming true — thanks to President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Right now … we’re embarked on implementing an agreement that would establish a zone along the Turkish-Syria border,” Joel Rayburn, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Oct. 2. “It’s meant to be a zone that’s safe for both Turkey and for … Syrians. So far, the implementation is going pretty well.”
Rayburn was touting what’s been called the “buffer zone,” or “security mechanism,” that the United States and Turkey had been working on for almost a year. The idea was to address Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish forces near its border — specifically to prevent their invading and killing our Kurdish allies, as they just began doing Wednesday.
Rayburn warned that a Turkish attack in northeastern Syria would not only be a disaster for the region, but would also set back efforts to solve the greater Syria conflict and hand a gift to America’s enemies. He also warned that it would hurt other U.S. objectives, namely to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State and push back against Iran.
“[The buffer zone] is part of a larger effort to stabilize at a political level the border between Turkey and Syria east of the Euphrates. … That’s a necessary condition for the resolution of the overall conflict,” he said. “We certainly think that a conflict along the Turkey-Syria border would serve the interests of all the bad actors in the conflict and in the surrounding region — whether that’s [the Islamic State] or al-Qaida or the Iranian regime, or what have you.”
Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said at the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States cannot carry out its strategy in Syria without partners such as the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who bore most of the burden in destroying the Islamic State’s caliphate. He said that the United States must not leave before stabilizing the area.
“And if we don’t do that, we will be back there, for sure, doing this again,” Mulroy said. “We owe it to the people that live there, who have beared unspeakable burdens, and we owe it to the men and women that are going to come after us at the State Department, at the Defense Department, that we don’t just leave this undone.”
The U.S. military was touting U.S.-Turkey joint patrols in the buffer zone as recently as Saturday. On Sunday, Trump spoke to Erdogan, after which all hell broke loose. The Turks announced they would invade. Trump ordered the U.S. military to pull 50 to 100 troops away from the border.
Trump went on a Twitter rampage, alternatively bragging that he was ending “endless wars,” then threatening Erdogan not to move forward with the operation Trump had just endorsed. By Monday afternoon, the Defense Department put out a statement seeking to clarify the policy, but panic had already broken out on the ground.