President Trump took a victory lap Wednesday when he claimed that the “cease-fire” on the Turkish-Syrian border justified his decision to lift all sanctions on Turkey.
The halt in the fighting, moreover, supposedly proved the ostensible wisdom of the president’s widely criticized decision to betray America’s Kurdish allies by greenlighting Turkey’s invasion of Syria to establish a security zone at the border.
But Trump’s hastily organized appearance in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House had a broader agenda.
First, the president’s announcement was intended to underscore the highly questionable benefits of his isolationist “America First” approach to foreign policy and his determination to end America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East.
“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” Trump said.
Second, the president’s remarks were aimed at distracting media and public attention from the growing support for his impeachment and removal from office.
The House is currently conducting an impeachment inquiry of Trump. It comes in the face of mounting evidence that he withheld crucial military aid to Ukraine – which is battling for its life against Russia – because he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, along with a probe of alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
The White House statement on the Middle East came less than 24 hours after Bill Taylor, the widely respected acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified that Trump had risked a key American national security goal – preventing Russia from dominating Ukraine – to advance his own personal political interests.
Taylor’s testimony Tuesday was the most detailed and incriminating evidence to date about the central question of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry: Did President Trump endanger the national security interests of the U.S. to advance his own reelection – what Washington calls a “quid pro quo”?
Taylor, a West Point graduate and Vietnam war veteran who has served Republican and Democratic presidents for over 25 years, told members of Congress that in his view, Trump had done exactly that.
The president needed to shift public attention away from Taylor’s devastating charges – and fast.
So as Trump was preparing to speak about Syria, a second stunt was staged. About two dozen of his ardent Republican supporters in the House literally stormed and occupied the sensitive compartmented information facility where impeachment depositions have been taken.
Both events are vintage Trump political hallmarks: in a crisis, deceive, deflect and distract.
Trump’s remarks were replete with false claims, some of which were contradicted by his own senior officials. For instance, Trump said that he had decided to lift sanctions after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised that the cease-fire along his border with Syria would become “permanent.”
Calling his much-criticized recent moves – made with little or no advance consultation with U.S. military or diplomats – a “major breakthrough toward achieving a better future for Syria and for the Middle East,” Trump said that his decisions would save “tens of thousands of Kurdish lives.”
But only a day earlier, Turkey (ostensibly a NATO member) and its emboldened new ally Russia (an American rival) endorsed a plan to push Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the newly created security zone.
How does letting Turkey and Russia control territory that only a month ago was held by American-backed Kurdish fighters advance their long-term interests or American national security? How does upending U.S. foreign policy by permitting Moscow and Tehran to expand their influence in the Arab Middle East strengthen U.S. security?
Moreover, how permanent is the “permanent” cease-fire Trump announced Wednesday? Even Trump acknowledged that the word “permanent” was “questionable.” So the president has lifted sanctions against Turkey before it’s clear that the cease-fire will hold, and surely long before there is a permanent political settlement between the Kurds and Turkey.
Trump also asserted that Kurdish Gen. Mazloum Abdi had assured him that the Islamic State fighters whom his formerly American-backed forces were holding would remain in captivity. But as he was speaking, America’s top envoy to Syria was telling Congress that as many as 100 ISIS fighters had already escaped, and that Washington had little clue about where they were.
Trump said that a “small number” of U.S. soldiers would help safeguard Syrian oil facilities. How they would do that without the aid of now-alienated Kurdish forces is also unclear – even as Trump’s top general in the Mideast was saying that the president would withdraw them all in a few months.
“We are getting out,” Trump said Wednesday, further muddying his earlier pronouncement about the fate of troop deployments in the Middle East. But the president made that claim after having sent 3,500 more troops to Saudi Arabia, part of the 14,000 additional troops he has sent to the Persian Gulf to counter Iranian attacks and provocations since May.
At any given time, The New York Times reports, the U.S. has between 45,000 and 65,000 troops in the Middle East. Are they all coming home? And if so, how is this not a dangerous replay of President Barack Obama’s disastrous decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, which enabled ISIS to seize territory the size of Great Britain?
Americans are understandably weary of Middle Eastern wars and U.S. troops abroad. But it is the presence of 78,000 American troops in South Korea and Japan that has helped stabilize that vital region and prevent another war in the Korean peninsula.
In Europe, it is the presence of some 35,000 U.S. troops – 4,500 of whom Trump’s administration deployed in the past year – that has helped deter Russian aggression.
As a result of what Trump called his “great American victory” Wednesday, President Bashar Assad of Syria is now stronger. Russian President Vladimir Putin is stronger. Turkey is now working with Russia to patrol Syria’s border.
America is viewed as an untrustworthy partner by the Kurds, who helped destroy ISIS, for which Trump claims credit. Thanks to him, escaped Islamist militants can scheme and dream of restoring their caliphate and attacking New York again.