In the year of our lord 2019, Republicans breaking from the party line to criticize President Donald Trump are virtually unheard of. They didn’t do it last month when news broke that Trump had attempted to illegally leverage the power of his office to demand a foreign country investigate Joe Biden. They didn’t do it when he suggested a whistleblower’s sources should be executed for treason. And they certainly didn’t do it when he floated the idea of soldiers shooting migrants in the legs to keep them from crossing the southern border.
But last week, as Turkish tanks rolled across the border and into northern Syria and began killing Kurdish troops, the president has found himself under fire from both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who represents a safely Republican district in Illinois, accused the president of putting U.S. national security at risk. House Republican Conference leader Rep. Liz Cheney said on Twitter that Trump “is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS.” Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the president’s staunchest defenders in Congress, beseeched followers on Twitter to “pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration.”
So what exactly is happening in Turkey, and why has it inspired such universal condemnation?
Et tu, Tweetus?
It started as all things do in this modern age, with an unheralded late-night White House statement and a tweet thread from the president. U.S. troops would stand down at the northern border of Syria, the statement said, clearing the way for a “long-planned” Turkish incursion. Just a few problems: first and foremost, no one—including the now-vulnerable Kurdish forces in Syria and the Pentagon itself—knew it was coming. Also, ethnic cleansing. And war crimes.
Specifically, the problem is this: Turkey and its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, view the Syrian Kurds as part of a terrorist group. There are quite a few initialisms, so bear with me. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is a Syrian Kurdish force that composes the majority of the SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF has done the majority of the boots-on-the-ground fighting against ISIS, with U.S. support in the form of weapons, intelligence and airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the PKK—Kurdistan Workers’ Party—in Turkey is a nationalist, separatist Kurdish political party which is considered a terrorist group by both the Turkish and American governments. The YPG, which also aims to form an independent Kurdish state, has ties to the PKK and has succeeded in establishing a semiautonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria.
Now that U.S. forces have vacated the area, Erdoğan’s response has been extreme. Turkey’s stated goal is to create a buffer region along the border for displaced Syrian refugees, but the Turkish offensive, aimed directly at Kurdish troops in the region, has raised fears of ethnic cleansing and even genocide.
‘Great and unmatched wisdom’
Beyond the immediate impacts of the U.S. withdrawal and Turkish offensive—a mounting death toll, execution-style killings of prisoners and civilian casualties from airstrikes and artillery—the conflict has raised the spectre of a resurgent ISIS.
Kurdish troops were central to defeating the group in the first place and in detaining thousands of ISIS militants, but Kurdish leaders have warned that they may not be able to continue to guard prisoners in the face of an ongoing Turkish assault. What’s more, reports suggest that nearly 1,000 militants have already escaped from prison camps in the region.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who previously resigned from the Trump administration over its Syria policy among other disputes, issued a stark warning on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “If we don't keep the pressure on them, ISIS will resurge. It's—it's absolutely a given that they will come back,” he said.
While the Trump administration has refused to walk back its withdrawal of troops, Trump himself has threatened Turkey over Twitter, warning that he will “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy [sic] of Turkey (I’ve done before!)” if they threaten U.S. interests in the region.
Needless to say, a resurgence of ISIS would be very, very bad for U.S. national security, for U.S. troops and allies in the region and really for just about everybody. Losing the Kurds as an ally—and pushing them into the waiting embrace of Vladimir Putin and Russia—is also not great for U.S. interests in the region, and only time will tell what long-term impacts the move will have.
Also, it’s worth noting that Turkey—a NATO ally, for some godforsaken reason \— deliberately “bracketed” an American base in Syria with artillery fire. Turkish proxies in the region have also endangered U.S. troops, and the U.S. now plans to evacuate all remaining troops from Syria. Some ally.
So where does that leave us? Nowhere good, to say the least. To sum things up: a NATO ally is engaged in ethnic cleansing, war crimes and the slaughter of U.S. allies. ISIS appears likely to make a return, and the U.S. is newly without allies on the ground to combat the group.
That’s just a brief survey of the damage so far—things have been moving rapidly since the U.S. withdrawal set events in motion last week, and reports of violence and atrocities continue to accumulate. In Congress, Sens. Graham and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., are collaborating on a bill to sanction Turkey for its actions, and the House is set to condemn Trump’s actions—albeit not Trump by name—for enabling the invasion.
Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet that things in the region will continue to get worse before they get better. For more on the conflict thus far, Vox has a far more in-depth explainer, and who knows? Maybe the president will tweet and U.S. policy will make another U-turn.
Thumbnail credit: By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2006Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by E.T. Studhalter, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5181460