America’s On-Off relationship with Turkey once again took a 180 degree turn as President Trump moved several dozen US Special Forces from the Turkish-Kurdish controlled Syrian border so Turkish military forces could enter Syria in what Turkey calls “Operation Peace Spring.”
The Kurds, key US allies in defeating ISIS in Syria, guard thousands of ISIS fighters and their relatives in prisons and camps in areas under their control and it is unclear whether they will continue to be safely detained.
Although the fog of war is clouding what is happening, it appears that Turkey moved military units into Syria early Wednesday morning and Kurdish forces are fighting back.
In the politically supercharged atmosphere of Washington DC, politicians took sides, but not always down party lines. However, most of the Washington based politicians opposed Trump, while polls showed that American voters, including Democrats, favored Trump’s move to limit military operations in Syria.
Much of the Democratic response was less about policy and more about politics. The new face of the Democratic Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attacked President Donald Trump’s proposal to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Syria, tweeting Tuesday that a pullout could have “catastrophic consequences.” Ocasio-Cortez’s stance is a complete reversal of her earlier position on the war in Syria and other “endless wars” overseas. She ran in 2018 on a pledge to end the war in Syria and elsewhere: “Alexandria believes that we must end the “forever war” by bringing our troops home, and ending the air strikes that perpetuate the cycle of terrorism throughout the world,” her 2018 campaign website said:
In addition to the Democratic opposition, this move also found Republican opposition too. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s supporters, on Tuesday demanded a senators-only briefing on the Syria move, which he said betrayed the Kurds and would make it tougher for the U.S. to build alliances going forward.
“The President’s decision will have severe consequences for our strategic national interests and reduce American influence in the region while strengthening Turkey, Russia, and Iran,” Graham wrote in a letter also signed by Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.). “The decision also dramatically increases the threat to our Kurdish allies, who helped destroy ISIS’s territorial caliphate, and will impair our ability to build strategic alliances in the future.”
Trump has indicated he will support Senator Graham’s economic sanctions if Erdogan doesn’t abide by his prior commitment – which is looking more likely as the invasion progresses.
Other Republican opposition came from Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House GOP leader, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
The broad-based backlash left some in the GOP hoping Trump would reverse himself, something Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) on Tuesday raised as a possibility.
“I understand he’s reconsidering. I do not think we should abandon the Kurds,” he told a reporter for Politico.
Trump did find support amongst some Democratic politicians. Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a veteran and says, "Honor our servicemen and women by only sending them on missions that are worthy of their sacrifice." This is a controversial view within her party.
Gabbard blames both parties. "I call out leaders in my own party and leaders in the Republican Party (and all) who are heavily influenced by the military-industrial complex that profits heavily off of us continuing to wage these counterproductive wars."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) strongly supports the president's move, even if the "neocon war caucus of the Senate" -- Paul's words -- does not.
"We haven't been able to find peace for 18 years in Afghanistan," Paul told Fox News's Neil Cavuto in a telephone interview on Monday. "So, I certainly don't think we're going to find peace in Syria. But I do think a couple of hundred people there is simply a trip wire for a bigger war or for a calamity for our soldiers."
“You know, I'm kind of the belief go big -- go big or go home. You know, 200 or 300 people are just a trip wire to get us drawn into something and a tragedy probably, but they aren't enough to do anything.”
Despite Senator Paul and Representative Gabbard, most of Washington opposed Trump’s Syrian move. However, in another sign that Washington is out of step with the rest of the country, most American voters prefer to get out of Syria.
A Rasmussen Poll taken this week showed 58% of likely American voters agreed with Trump’s statement, “It is time for us to get out of those ridiculous endless wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. We will fight where it is to our benefit and only fight to win.” Only 20% of those polled disagreed with that statement.
Even 55% of Democrats agreed with the Trump statement, although the poll didn’t identify the statement as a Trump quote. 69% of Republicans and 50% of independents also agreed.
Forty-four percent (44%) of all voters believe that their political leaders send American soldiers into harm’s way too often. Only 4% disagree with that statement. Those who believe that US soldiers are sent into harm’s way about the right amount of the time was 38%.
This reflects the average American’s historical isolationist view.
What happens next depends on the understanding between presidents Trump and Erdogan. Trump has made it clear that if the Turks go too far, the US will impose heavy economic sanctions, something Turkey can’t afford.
On Thursday, Trump said he’s prepared to “wipe out” Turkey’s economy if the Kurds were targeted. He also called Turkey’s operations a “bad idea” and said he hoped Erdogan would “act rationally.”
Although Washington politicians have made much of Trump abandoning the Kurds, there is still the covert American support, some of which goes through Israel.
The Kurds have been receiving US training and equipment for about 30 years. The American Special forces have developed a warm relationship with them and respect them as accomplished fighters.
The fact that Trump only redeployed a few dozen Special Forces soldiers from the Turkish border means that most of the security is already in Kurdish hands.
No doubt, there are US Special Forces working with the Kurds elsewhere in the Middle East.
The US will undoubtedly continue to send arms to the Kurds. And, although they may not be able to go “head to head” with the Turkish Army, they can still hurt the Turks if Erdogan pushes too far. This has been proven when Turkey carried out operations against Turkish Kurds or Kurds in Iraq.
The US has also trained Kurds in calling in tactical air support. That means if Erdogan goes too far, the Kurds can ask for American air power to support their operations.
It’s also important to remember that the Turkish Army, despite its size has many problems. A Washington Institute analysis published in March 2019 looked at Turkish operations in Syria and found many operational problems. These included lack of discipline, obsolete equipment like tanks, inability to disrupt of Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates, and the inability to generate “desired operational outcomes.”
Although Turkey can push back Kurdish forces in Syria, the question is if they can control the territory for an indefinite period. Past performance says no.
Polling shows that Trump has a better measure of American voters outside the Washington area than most politicians or media analysts. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and during his campaign made a quick victory over ISIS and withdrawal of forces from Syria a campaign promise.
The biggest problem for Trump would be if the move would allow the resurgence of ISIS – an unlikely event given the fact that there are still US forces in Syria that could quickly respond to such a situation.
Don’t be surprised if the Erdogan visit to Washington suddenly gets cancelled. It appears at this early stage that Erdogan and Turkey may be exceeding what they promised Trump. In that case, expect more economic sanctions too.
However, in the world of presidential politics, troops in Syria fall far below other considerations like the economy, illegal immigration, gun rights, impeachment, etc. Most Americans don’t know who the Kurds are and are more concerned about their sons and daughters in the military that may have to go to war to defend them.
Trump can point to the defeat of ISIS and withdrawing forces out of danger in Syria – a political promise kept (Something of a political rarity in America).
It’s not enough to win reelection, but it will not hurt.