Trump’s agreement on the telephone with Erdogan that Turkey could go ahead and invade Kurdish Syria was a disaster; local and, geo-political.
It was compounded a few days later when following talks in Ankara, the US gave Turkey everything it wanted. The deeper issue raised by these events is the utter dysfunction in US foreign policy and its exercise. It’s become like a bowl of spaghetti and, Trump and his enablers have been tangling it ever further, each day.
Turkey and the US are allied, through their membership of NATO. A critical consequence of this is: permanent US deployment to the Incirlik air base in eastern Turkey and, the storage in Turkey of 50 US nuclear warheads.
Last week, within 6 days, beginning with Trump’s phone conversation with Erdogan on Sunday October 13th Trump did these things: ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the Kurdish homeland in North Eastern Syria; accepted that Turkey would then invade and annex that area. Turkey began that action, the next day; warned Turkey not to go too far or kill too many people and, threatened to destroy the Turkish economy if they did so; shortly after the Turkish invasion, demanded a cease-fire; sent Pence and Pompeo to Ankara to negotiate on that; sent a letter to Erdogan ( curiously back-dated to October 9th) proposing that they “make a deal” but, again, threatening to destroy the Turkish economy, if Erdogan did not accept his demands.
Erdogan let it be known that he read the letter and then tossed it into the garbage.
I have organized these unusual events into a logical sequence, as far as that has been possible. This has not involved any alteration of facts.
Another ally of the US is at the centre of these events is the Kurdish democratic force. Supported by the US, it had destroyed the ISIS Caliphate in the region. The Kurds lost some 11,000 fighters. The US lost less than a dozen. It was the existence of this alliance which had prevented Erdogan from invading Syria in that area, to establish a Kurd free stretch of land of some 200×30 kilometres and, implementing what is widely seen as his genocidal policy towards the Kurds. The US trashed that alliance, last week.
The meeting in Ankara lasted 5 hours: 1 hour with Erdogan and the rest with Pence/Pompeo and officials. At the end, Pence announced, with great satisfaction, that agreement had been reached incorporating: a pause during which the US would completely evacuate the Kurdish area; departure by the Kurds or if some stayed, they would have to surrender their weapons; if all conditions were fulfilled there would be a permanent cessation by Turkey of its military actions.
Pence expressed great satisfaction with these outcomes, attributing them to the resolute and clear- sighted leadership by Trump. Back home, on the way to another MAGA rally, Trump claimed a total victory for his policy and actions which said benefited “all of civilization”.
The Turkish side expressed, privately, complete satisfaction with the Ankara meetings stating that, “we got everything we wanted”.
The Kurds have stated that they have been betrayed and consigned to an appalling fate. Turkey has a formidable military capability and Erdogan has made eliminating the Kurdish menace to Turkey a key domestic political platform. It must be recorded that to achieve this, he has asserted that the Syrian democratic Kurds are indistinguishable from a Kurdish opposition group within Turkey. This is a lie.
On the ground in Kurdish Syria: thousands of families fled south; sporadic fighting continues; some of the prisons holding ISIS fighters were broken open and their occupants dispersed; Syrian armed forces entered and, Russian armed forces commenced patrolling the area. It is reported that Iranian forces are on the way (they want a corridor across northern Syria into Lebanon) and there is a number of other armed militias in the area; there have been reports of the use by Turkish forces of white phosphorous munitions – an illegal chemical weapon.
In DC, a bipartisan resolution of the House of Representatives, condemned the President’s action in abandoning the Kurdish ally and significantly, key Republicans in the Senate (where an impeachment trial will occur), did the same.
The assertion that an ally has been betrayed is spoken of widely and, the damage this has done to US credibility and honour, has been lamented.
Leaders of the foreign policy and defense commentariat also condemned Trump’s actions but, additionally, have expressed despair at the state of US foreign and security policy formulation and management.
It is recognized in all serious circles, including Republican, that Trump is radically unfit for his job; that he is dangerous in it.
It would be a serious mistake however, to blame all of last week’s events solely on Trump. These current instances of Trump’s unfitness merely serves to underline an abiding question: why is it so difficult to contain him; where are the so-called “adults in the room” (one answer is that most of them, so far, have quit or been fired).
There is profound dysfunction in US foreign and international policy. This is being felt in virtually all theatres in which the US has a role and/or presence.
Because of the intrinsic importance of the Middle East and its history, since the British and the French divided it between them at the end of the First World War and, now particularly since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, there is an urgent need for coherence in western policy towards the area. US policy has come to have none.
One new approach would be for the US to remove from the area it’s armed forces, those permanently stationed there. This would not necessarily mean cutting off alliance or support arrangements to individual states in the region. But it would mean ending all presence that is seen today as imperialist and authors conflict and the establishment of terrorist groups.
Interestingly, Trump has said for several years now, that he wants to bring the troops home from the region and, end the US’ “endless wars”. This seems to attract a meaningful silence amongst most members of Congress. For most of them, US strength equates with US military intervention.
In the debate last week amongst Democrat presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren was asked a direct question about how she would deal with the situation in Kurdish Syria, brought about by Trump’s actions. She began her answer by saying that in her view, the US shouldn’t be there, in the first place.
On this issue it thus appears that she and Trump have something in common. Any such realization was drowned out by Republicans. They pounced on her stating that she had revealed precisely, why she should not be President: she’s a closet pacifist, like all socialists. She couldn’t possibly understand the realities of the exercise of power.
Truth is, there is no consensus on that exercise or just about any strand of foreign and international security policy in Trump’s Washington. It’s a bowl of spaghetti and Trump and his enablers have been tangling it further.
In the Middle East, the only US policy objectives which are clear are: immovable support for Israel, Saudi Arabia and, the UAE; and, unbending hostility to Iran. These positions are impervious to the facts and thus expose the US to serious weakness. Those weaknesses do not only leave vacuums to be filled, for example by Russia and China, but also opportunities to be exploited by those beneficiaries of US support.
For example, Israel can make whatever decisions are driven by its domestic politics with negative impact on the Palestinian people and, in its military actions against Iran and Syria with complete certainty that there will be no US resistance. The same is true of Saudi Arabia. The US is silent on Saudi atrocities in Yemen and, has suppressed what it knows of Prince Salman’s complicity in the Khashoggi murder. And, the arms sales keep rolling along.
On the geopolitical level, in particular US/Russia relationship, the spaghetti is particularly tightly woven. At one end of the spectrum, all mainstream media and all members of Congress routinely describe Russia as “America’s adversary”. But,Trump is schizophrenic on this. His overtures to Putin have been florid; he has rejected virtually all conclusions reached by the US intelligence community on Russia’s clandestine activities and, those in the Mueller report; but he has authorized the continuation of sanctions on Russia for various actions deemed contrary to US interests.
His long- standing position is that there is every reason to try to improve relations with Russia. What rational person could disagree with that?
Well, one very rational leader, Nancy Pelosi, appears to have concerns. Last week in a White House meeting of congressional and military leaders, called to consider the situation in Kurdish Syria, just after the House had adopted its resolution condemning Trump’s actions, Pelosi asked Trump “why is it that your actions always seem to lead to Putin?”. It was then that Trump spoke abusively towards her, personally, and she and the Leader of the Democrats in the Senate walked out.
There is overt competition of a fairly classic type, amongst US, Russia and China. This is accompanied by propaganda, vilification, as usual. This can mask real objectives and defy analyses. And, today there is the added battle ground of the internet and social media, the consequences of which are seen to be potentially vast and as yet, unfathomable.
I have not addressed the secret layer of the conduct of international relations. This is constant and active. It includes: arms sales, money laundering, espionage, and, secret agreements on policy objectives, which may be the diametric opposite to what is being postured publicly. Suffice for now to observe that given the stakes at issue and the interested players, it would be folly not to assume that there is much more going on with respect to the US/Turkey/Russia relationship than is being signaled publicly.
Following his windfall in his interactions with Trump and senior Americans, last week. Erdogan is to visit Putin in Moscow, this coming week.
Following his visit to DC, Scott Morrison gave a foreign policy speech at the Lowy Institute. In it he expounded a slightly masked version of Trump’s nationalism over globalism ideology. How alarming.
One can only wonder about what lens through which he and his enablers in the Canberra defence and security establishment, will view Trump’s betrayal of such a loyal ally as the Syrian Kurds.
Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.