Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
By withdrawing US troops from Syria, President Donald Trump is playing a kind of Russian roulette, entrusting dangerous players with key US national security objectives.
Trump is not known to admit mistakes and often doubles down under pressure, so it’s unlikely he’ll try to change course on Syria. But by acquiescing to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wishes, Trump has betrayed our Kurdish allies and tarnished our credibility as reliable partners. His move also means that a lot of our previously held core priorities, such as fighting ISIS and defending Israel, are now in the hands of some very suspect leaders.
Don’t be a chicken with Turkey
Just last year, Trump affirmed his commitment to prioritizing counterterrorism and wrote in his 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism: “I made a solemn promise to the American people to spare no effort to preserve the safety and security of the United States.”
Counterterrorism is a key focus for any president, and Trump has consistently (and inaccurately) championed his own administration’s success fighting ISIS. With the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces and our other partners in Syrian counterterrorism, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has made major gains in destroying the terrorist group’s territorial footholds in Syria.
After Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from Syria last December (an announcement he did not implement) – also following a call with Erdogan – the US did maintain a contingent of troops, mostly special forces, as part of our counterterrorism mission in Syria.
Now we’ve significantly reduced our resources to counter ISIS in Syria and outsourced our counterterrorism campaign to Erdogan, and to Russia and Iran – two of our biggest enemies.
Hundreds of forces that were partnering with the United States to fight ISIS are now relocating and refocusing to fight Turkey and defend themselves. The Washington Post reports that the pace of Kurdish operations against ISIS has “significantly tapered off,” as the Kurds have had to deprioritize their battle against the Islamic State because they’ve lost our support – and because they have to focus on protecting themselves from Erdogan.
Erdogan will have control over territory in Syria now – and could take on a larger share of the counterterrorism mission there. But he views Syrian Kurds as terrorists who are allied with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. His near-term priority is pushing back – and getting rid of – the Syrian Kurdish forces.
What’s more, the United States’ withdrawal from Syria will hurt our ability to gather intelligence there, as we lose eyes and ears on the ground and direct access to human intelligence networks. Our mission against ISIS in Syria was not over, and our withdrawal has only increased the risks posed by the thousands of ISIS members still on the loose in Syria.
Now, because of our hasty withdrawal, ISIS fighters have been released – in part because Kurdish fighters who were guarding ISIS prisons and camps have had to relocate. The Kurds will be forced to divert even more resources from countering ISIS going forward.
America is not winning any reliability contests with this move. Our abrupt withdrawal from northeast Syria and our abandonment of our counterterrorism mission there was reportedly announced without the coordination with the Kurds or any other key coalition partners; French President Emmanuel Macron said he found out about this decision from a tweet.
Trump’s reckless decision will impede our future ability to persuade partners to work with us on counterterrorism missions around the world.
All roads lead to Russia
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “all roads seem to lead to Putin” when it comes to Trump’s actions. She’s right, especially when it comes to Trump supporting Russia’s goal of gaining power and influence in the Middle East.
Ever since Bashar al-Assad officially requested Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, Vladimir Putin has been playing boss in the ongoing conflict. With significant assets on the ground in Syria, Putin’s been propping up Assad in the Syrian dictator’s fight against rebels and ISIS. And he’s been trying to play the neutral power-broker by offering to “mediate” an end to the war in Syria, despite his obvious bias toward Assad.
Putin has hosted summits with key players in Syria before – including one last February in Sochi between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Putin is scheduled to meet again with Erdogan this week and will probably try to trump the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate a “pause” in Turkey’s military operations.
With Russian and Syrian forces now occupying former US bases in northeastern Syria and former US allied forces turning to both Assad and Russia for protection, we may have to rely on one of our biggest enemies – Russia – to work with Turkey to ensure the bloodshed stops.