Trump’s ‘Green Light’ Moment in Syria Shook the World
There was a time when the withdrawal of roughly 50 American Special Forces from a couple of outposts in a remote part of Syria wouldn’t have generated a wave of angst across the world about the United States unceremoniously dumping its allies and terminating the international system it has led for more than 70 years.
That time is decidedly not now.
When I recently asked a European official about the fate of the Syrian Kurds, who, after that U.S. retreat in October, came under Turkish assault, the official referenced President Donald Trump’s contention that the fighting had “nothing to do with” the United States. In just over a week, the violence left hundreds of Kurdish fighters and civilians dead; more than 100,000 people displaced; the near defeat of the Islamic State in jeopardy; and Turkey, Russia, and the Iranian-backed Syrian government carving up territory vacated by the Kurds and the Americans.
The same official noted that Syrian Kurdish forces have been partners in the U.S.-led multinational military campaign against the Islamic State, and that “what happens [in Syria] is being called ‘other people’s business’ even though ‘other people’s business’ will affect in all likelihood America’s European allies.” Then the official posed the fundamental question raised by the U.S. position, one that will linger over the gathering of anti-ISIS coalition members in Washington, D.C., this week: “What does that mean for our confidence that in a time of crisis or challenge we will have the backing of our American allies?” (The official, like several others in this article, asked to speak about the situation in Syria on condition of anonymity.) “It’s too early to say how this will play out. It will depend on whether the risks can be curtailed. But it’s a question that is the writing on the wall right now.”
“Allies and partners worry that decreasing U.S. leadership and influence around the world might spark regional conflicts” as America’s competitors gain “more power and influence” and “fill the vacuum created by U.S. ignorance and isolationism,” the official told me.
What these sentiments show is that, despite all the international norms and institutions that have emerged since World War II, and all the talk of the United States as the world’s policeman, ultimately there are no incontrovertible rules, no institutions of last resort, and no world police. There are just leaders, their promises, and what they are actually prepared to do. That’s why inconsistency and unpredictability among allies are so unnerving. Your ally may have your back in theory, but if it doesn’t have your back in practice, you’re in serious trouble.
Trump’s decision after an October 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—to hastily pull U.S. troops from northeastern Syria and leave the Kurds, the principal fighters against ISIS, to face a Turkish military incursion—was not just another controversial foreign-policy move by a perennially controversial president.
Throughout this saga, Trump has ridiculed Barack Obama for recoiling in 2013 from using military force to enforce his “red line” on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. That choice became the casus belli for critics who argued that the too-timid Obama was rendering America’s commitments worthless and its power hollow. But given all the fallout among Trump’s allies, both foreign and domestic, not to mention his detractors, and the impact of the U.S. government’s policy zigzagging in Syria these past weeks, Trump’s green-light moment will haunt him and the United States for a long time to come, like Obama’s red-line moment still looms large over his presidency.
Arguing that there is a “direct line” from Obama’s unenforced red line in Syria to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s land grabs in the South China Sea—a disputable claim—he reflected on how “the decisions we’re making today [are] affecting the perception of American power.” Allies have had misgivings about American consistency and reliability across multiple U.S. administrations, he allowed, but “I do think it’s reaching a dangerous point here where there’s too much misunderstanding and doubt.”
In his Economist interview, Macron plumbed the depths of that doubt. Citing the total absence of internal coordination as two NATO members—Turkey and the United States—took actions in Syria that threatened to undermine other members’ security, Macron declared the “brain death” of the 70-year-old military alliance. “The ultimate guarantor, the umbrella which made Europe stronger, no longer has the same relationship with Europe,” Macron said of the United States, which means that Europeans need to rethink how they preserve their safety and sovereignty. Yet he traced the cause of death back further than Trumpism. Obama’s failure to respond to chemical-weapons use in Syria was, he said, “the first stage in the collapse of the Western bloc.”
When I asked a U.S. official about the idea that Trump gave Erdoğan a “green light” for his marauding bands to attack a U.S. partner, the official vigorously disputed it as an “erroneous and false narrative.” But even that official admitted that this was the “current perception” and that “has hurt us deeply” around the world. And in foreign affairs, interpretation is often reality.
The narrative, moreover, isn’t just some collective hallucination of Trump’s critics. It’s coming from former members of his administration (including the man who oversaw the president’s anti-ISIS military campaign), from his most stalwart Republican supporters in Congress, from some top officials in the administration, and even from the president himself.
“The abrupt decision to withdraw [U.S. troops] and green-light the Turkish operation in northeast Syria was a betrayal of one of our best partners in the global war on terrorists,” a senior administration official told The Atlantic in late October. “It disrupted our ‘Defeat ISIS’ fight and hurt our reputation as a reliable partner worldwide.”
As the U.S. military scrambles to deal with the fallout in the Middle East, it has stressed that it won’t totally abandon the Kurds just yet. This week, the American spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition even held a joint press conference in Syria with the Kurdish-led forces’ spokesman.
In an internal memo obtained by The New York Times, William Roebuck, the lone American diplomat on the ground in northerneastern Syria these past few weeks, similarly stated that the administration “didn’t try” hard enough to deter Turkey’s offensive through diplomatic, economic, and military means. He wrote that the resulting violence, which included “war crimes and ethnic cleansing” by Turkish-supported Islamist militias, “is to a significant degree of our making,” and that Turkey’s operation “damaged our regional and international credibility.”
“I do sense genuine alarm” from Republicans who seem to “believe that this might be a tipping point in which it dramatically chills the enthusiasm of any other nation or group to ally with the United States,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee dealing with the Middle East and counterterrorism, told me.
What happened to the Kurds was, in a sense, every U.S. ally’s worst nightmare come to life.
After three years of simmering doubt among America’s far-flung partners about Trump’s dedication to allies, the president for the first time actually cut one loose, showing little respect for the sacrifices the partner had made to advance their mutual interests. The decision to withdraw U.S. troops was made suddenly and unilaterally. No advance notice was given, not just to the Kurds and America’s closest allies but also to top officials working on Syria within the Trump administration.
This wasn’t just Trump engaging in one of his long-running rhetorical skirmishes with America’s partners. This was costing a partner territory. This was costing a partner lives. This was the U.S. military destroying its facilities and getting pelted with tomatoes by spurned partners as it rushed for the door.
What was especially jarring about the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria wasn’t that it happened, but how it happened.
“It seems to me that the president’s judgment on this is that American troops’ lives were saved and nothing else matters,” Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told me. (Khanna shares Trump’s desire to leave militarily from Syria but is critical of how the withdrawal has been carried out.) “There is no indication to me that he’s giving moral consideration to the lives of the Kurds. Maybe that’s what he means by ‘America First’: the diminishment of the moral consideration of non-American values and interests.”
And if Trump really is, after all the tumult of the past few weeks, reverting to something resembling the previous American military presence in Syria, then the U.S. will have watched partners be slaughtered, ceded territory to adversaries, and shed American leverage and influence to no apparent end.
Allies that have formal, decades-old defense treaties and strategic, institutional alliances with the United States surely will distinguish between their relationship and the one the U.S. had with a Kurdish militia. Yanking hundreds of American soldiers from northern Syria is not the same as yanking thousands from, say, Poland and the Baltics, where Trump has, in fact, sent more troops, despite his complaints about NATO members’ insufficient defense contributions. These allies are unlikely to overhaul their U.S. policies or lose all trust in American promises because of Trump’s recent actions in Syria. Some may even view the bipartisan outcry in Washington and the administration’s subsequent policy reversals as an encouraging sign that Trump will never get away with abandoning them completely. However, the fact that these allies are expressing alarm about what they just witnessed in Syria indicates that the tremors from Trump’s treatment of the Kurds have been powerful enough to shake those deep roots.
As Graham noted during his press conference, “The president did not give a green light, but Erdoğan went in anyway. And that’s the problem … China is watching. Russia is watching. Iran is watching.”
And China, Russia, and Iran aren’t the only ones tuning in. A leading South Korean newspaper broached a similarly improvisational American military withdrawal from South Korea, a possibility it categorized as part of the “Trump risk” that U.S. allies are now factoring into their foreign policymaking. Meanwhile, a Taliban negotiator predicted that the Afghan government will be the next American ally to be abandoned.
If the U.S. government wants to remove American troops from Afghanistan, and the withdrawal is done in coordination with the Afghan government and with measures in place to mitigate risk, “that we could work with,” the official said. But if the U.S. reaches a deal with the Taliban that allows the militant group to take over Afghanistan, it “would result in nothing but a huge civil war and big turmoil in the region.”
One of the revelations of the Trump era is that allies appear to be willing to endure rougher and more transactional treatment than previous American presidents might have assumed they would. As the international-relations scholar Van Jackson recently pointed out, “It’s important not to overstate what kind of price [America] will pay” for U.S. actions in Syria, because “for any number of states that are aligned with the U.S., they don’t have a good, viable alternative right now.” Still, he noted, “Trump is creating a deficit in American influence that future presidents are going to have to waste political capital on trying to make up”—that is, if they ever can.
With regard to Syria, the Trump Doctrine has succeeded in one way: Other countries are becoming more assertive in addressing the fallout, though not always effectively or in a manner consistent with U.S. interests. U.S. allies recognize that they can’t completely count on Washington but nevertheless remain reliant on the U.S.-led multinational system, a predicament that curbs their ambitions and emboldens adversaries. Exhibit A is the chaos in Syria, which Russia now bestrides like a colossus.
The dizzying developments in Syria represent “a decisive moment for the United States in terms of its relationships in general and at the same time being a superpower in the world. Power always brings authority, and authority comes with responsibility,” the senior Afghan official told me. The United States “cannot be a great nation and fully isolated and secluded and inward-looking and thinking that whatever happens in the rest of the world has nothing to do with them,” the Afghan official continued. “In this time in the course of human history, that’s not an option.”
Yara Bayoumy and Kathy Gilsinan contributed reporting.