President Donald Trump shocked the Pentagon on Sunday with an announcement that he would order the withdrawal of US troops that have been fighting alongside Kurdish rebels in northern Syria. It’s a dramatic policy change that was rather unexpected in military circles. It also opens the door for Turkey to invade the area, and it creates a more complicated mess that began with US involvement in Syria.
US involvement in Syria began five years ago under President Barack Obama during the fight against ISIS. The US military formed an alliance with Kurdish rebels that were seeking to form a Kurdish state that could then join Kurdistan. Turkey has long feared that Kurdish people within its own borders will do the same, and Russian forces often sided with opponents of the Kurdish rebels that support the Syrian regime. This created a proxy war between Russia and the US that was never really acknowledged by either side.
This mess is a good illustration of what happens when the US gets involved in foreign conflicts. The US is in a no-win situation. Staying in northern Syria would mean continued risk for US soldiers and continued costs on taxpayers that ultimately serves no US interest, and it would leave diplomatic relations with Turkey in turmoil. Leaving now, on the other hand, leaves strong US allies without protection against a Turkish invasion. It will also give the Russians and Chinese an opportunity, in future diplomatic engagements, a good case to explain to potential supporters of the US that if they partner with America they may eventually be abandoned.
Foreign entanglements are often extremely messy, but this one seems to be one of the worst, with bad consequences regardless of the decision to stay or go. I would say that the decision to pull back troops at least reduces the risk on US lives and reduces the cost for the US taxpayer. However, America will have to face consequences either way.
Many with the Pentagon will argue that everything that was gained will be lost, and many will argue that the withdrawal represents a slap in the face to allies that have been loyal to the US in the fight against terror groups like ISIS. After five years of US promises to protect Kurdish forces, abandoning them at this time must be a shock to the Kurds. The decision seems cold and harsh, but at the same time, it’s an acceptance that the US made a mistake in its involvement to begin with.
Yes, ISIS is a terrible, and perhaps even an evil, group of people that terrorize everyday people in their mission to establish an authoritarian caliphate. They represent everything free people stand against. They are vile and cruel. However, the US cannot be involved in every conflict that seeks to eliminate the vile and cruel from the world. A military should always be used for defense and not as a world police force.
Foreign policy should always pursue diplomacy first with an eye to establishing free trade. The goal of military policy should always be to protect citizens, not to protect influence. And, as cold as it may sound, the US cannot afford to protect the citizens of other nations. Alliances are a natural formation between countries that need additional protection and have common threats, and in those cases, it makes sense. But moving into foreign conflicts to form alliances that offer no real common protections and will be essentially endless do not make sense.
Trump announced earlier last week that he was planning a shift in foreign policy to withdraw US troops from a number of regions. It’s a positive sign that foreign policy in the administration could be shifting more toward something more reasonable. This is a commendable first step.
After five years of fighting alongside the Kurds, it is a truly sad state to throw them to the wolves. However, this does not take away from the fact that US involvement in Syria was probably not the right decision five years ago. Hopefully there will be more withdrawals in other places, and hopefully this will lead to troops finally coming back home. There’s nothing wrong with sharing intelligence and perhaps even armament agreements with allies like the Kurds, but there is hope that US foreign policy will move away from protecting influence and move more toward simply protecting US citizens.
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