President Donald Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from northern Syria following a phone call with Turkish president Recep Erdogan has drawn fire from both sides of the political divide.
In a rare show of disapproval of Trump’s actions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Monday that he was “gravely concerned” by the U.S. response to the escalating conflict.
McConnell said the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria would not be in the long-term interests of the U.S.
“Abandoning this fight now and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria would re-create the very conditions that we have worked hard to destroy and invite the resurgence of ISIS,” McConnell said. “And such a withdrawal would also create a broader power vacuum in Syria that will be exploited by Iran and Russia, a catastrophic outcome for the United States’ strategic interests.”
Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, said Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw has created two main problems.
“One is a moral problem. This is an ally who has fought and died to support our interests – 11,000 Kurds died in the battle against ISIS,” said Pape, while noting that American casualties were few. “Second is the strategic problem. ISIS and anti-American terrorism in general is just going to grow.”
Pape, who last week wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe titled “A Dangerous Blunder in Syria,” said that ISIS and a new Al Qaeda group were already rebuilding and gaining “cohesion inside of Syria.”
“They are dedicated, pledged against America groups,” Pape said. “This is not a problem for somebody else, this is a problem for us here at home.”
Cecile Shea, a former U.S. diplomat and current senior fellow on security and diplomacy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, also fears the consequences of Trump’s decision.
“This decision regarding Turkey was done in a matter of hours against the advice of everyone around the president and it has significant short-term, medium-term, and most alarmingly long-term national security implications,” Shea said. “We’re all in a lot more danger because of this decision, along with other statements and decisions in the last week that have once again insulted our closest allies, have made it harder to maintain our partnerships overseas and has really made people question the values America has always espoused.”
Shea also fears that as the Kurds redeploy forces that were guarding ISIS fighters to fight against the Turks, ISIS terrorists who were captives will be able to escape.
“They are going to kind of disappear into the wind and they are going to make their way back to Europe,” Shea said. “And the president has really shockingly said that he is fine with the terrorists returning to Europe – just an appalling thing for him to say. But they are also going to make their way back to Indonesia and Malaysia which is going to put Singapore and Thailand and Australia at risk. So that’s really alarming.”
And Pape points out that the idea that these released ISIS members will not be able to hurt Americans is “delusional.”
“There are a lot of ways to hurt Americans without traveling and crossing our borders,” Pape said. “Airports can be attacked and planes can be attacked with a lot of Americans on board – and that’s an international problem … Remember, this is President Trump who is telling us our borders are so porous we’ve got to build a wall. And now he’s telling us we are so strong we can forget about the threat. This is just a gigantic contradiction.”
According to Pape, Trump’s decision to effectively give Turkey the green light to attack the Kurds has created a tinderbox with a “major potential for escalation.”
“We’re now at an inflection point. We’re not past the point of no return on escalation, but we’re at an inflection point,” Pape said. “If the Syrians directly clash with the Turkish military and you get hundreds of people killed, this could be really messy. One of the things to keep in mind is that this could escalate and you could end up with Russia coming in on the side of Syria.”
And in the long term, the ramifications of Trump’s Syrian withdrawal could reset the politics of the region and cause traditional American allies in Europe and elsewhere to question their faith in America.
“Why would anyone side with us ever again when we are willing to pull out this quickly?” Shea said. “And why would our most important allies stick up for us if we are going to continue to stab them in the back?”
“It’s going to strengthen Bashar al-Assad even more … and it’s going to strengthen Russia’s already very strong hand in Syria and to a certain degree in Turkey,” Shea continued. “I should also add that this is really bad for Israel’s security. Netanyahu, I hope, is really questioning his decision to go all-in with President Trump right now because the strengthening of ISIS and Assad is really bad for Israel.”
And while President Trump announced Monday afternoon that he was going to issue an executive order to impose sanctions on Turkey because of its “destabilizing” offensive against the Kurds in Syria, neither Shea nor Pape expect the move to have any positive impact.
“It’s kind of a day late and a dollar short,” Shea said. “The [Turkish] behavior was inevitable once the president gave them a green light. Should we sanction them? Yes. But that’s not going to bring these Kurdish children back to life. It’s not going to put the ISIS prisoners back in jail – they are out now.”
“This is just a sort of fig-leaf response that is of no actual meaning or value at the moment,” Pape said. “It’s sort of pretending to do something when in fact you are just going to stand aside and just watch this thing implode.”
Pape and Shea join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the latest developments in Syria.