Trump’s Syria Policy

SDF gunner firing towards the ISIL camp, 4 March 2019. Source: Voice of America

I have a piece in The Atlantic which is extremely critical of the mess that Trump has made of northeastern Syria. In fact, I argue that the whole episode encapsulates the reasons why Trump is simply unfit to oversee American foreign and national-security policy.

Because Trump’s approach to foreign policy is too often reactive, he finds himself turning to coercive diplomacy to clean up his messes—to try to put the proverbial horse back in the barn. This is exactly what’s happening with Turkey. Instead of trying to deter Erdoğan from invading Syria, Trump resorted to punitive sanctions after the incursion had already begun, after people were dying, after U.S. troops were trying to evacuate, and after the Russian-Syrian-SDF agreement. (Trump’s pursuit of sanctions is almost certainly a tactical response to domestic political pressure, rather than a developed contingency plan.) The imposition of sanctions carries greater political risks for everyone concerned than if Trump had read his talking points, pushed back against Erdoğan’s demands, and left American troops in place. Indeed, some reports suggest that Erdoğan was surprised by Trump’s capitulation—that Erdoğan believed he was opening a negotiation rather than issuing an ultimatum.

Everything that’s occurred since I wrote the article reinforces my view. In an effort to mitigate the domestic backlash against his decision, Trump agreed to basically all of Turkey’s terms. U.S. forces would “assist” (somehow) evacuating America’s erstwhile allies from Erdoğan’s “safe zone” and destroying their heavy arms; Turkey would agree not to shoot at them while this was going on. However, numerous sources are reporting that violent clashes in the area are ongoing. So it’s not entirely clear how much of a “pause” this is in Turkey’s operation.

About Dan Nexon 50 Articles
Daniel Nexon is an associate professor in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change.