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An assessment of Trump’s Syria pullback: a misstep or a credibility calamity?

Funerals for Kurdish fighters were held Monday in al-Hasakeh in north Syria.Baderkhan Ahmad/Associated Press/Associated Press

As the bloody consequences of President Trump’s recent actions in Syria continued to ricochet across the region, experts back home clashed over what it all meant. Was his sudden decision to withdraw troops from the country a historic error that would gravely damage American credibility? Or was it just another misstep in America’s foreign policy in a tumultuous region?

Early Monday morning, dozens of American military vehicles drove out of Syria and protesters gathered to register their alarm and anger, hurling rocks and potatoes at the departing tanks, according to The New York Times.

“The Americans are running away like rats!” one protester shouted.


At the very least, many experts agreed that Trump’s actions were reckless.

“No one has a silver bullet for what should happen in northeastern Syria,” said Peter Krause, a professor of political science at Boston College and author of the book “Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight, and Win.” But, he said, the president’s hasty move and “the seeming lack of foresight or coordination” involved would lead to a string of negative consequences for the region and for the United States.

The main repercussion for the United States, he said, is “first and foremost this whole concept of American credibility.”

Angry Kurds pelted US vehicles with potatoes as they withdrew from their positions in Syria Monday. ANHA via Associated Press

Earlier this month, Trump ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 1,000 American troops along the Syrian border who were acting as default peacekeepers between Turkey and Kurdish forces. The move left those Kurdish forces, vital American allies in the fight against ISIS, abandoned and facing brutal attacks from Turkey.

The withdrawal has been widely condemned as a gift to such US foes as Iran, Russia, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, all of which seek to fill the power vacuum. The House passed a bipartisan rebuke of Trump’s action, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader of the Senate, wrote a critical op-ed in the Washington Post calling the withdrawal “a grave strategic mistake.”


Many scholars and diplomats agreed, emphasizing that it would hurt America’s ability to make promises in the future.

“The US had committed to the Kurds, had worked with the Kurds,” Krause said. “They pulled out with basically no warning. That’s not exactly holding to your word.”

But, Krause said, the concept of credibility is nuanced and can be broken into two distinct parts. First, capability — if a country says it will do something, can it practically achieve it? The capabilities of the United States have not dwindled because of the withdrawal of troops from Syria, he said; so that aspect of American credibility remains intact.

The second part, he said, is believability — if a country says it will do something, will other countries believe it? It is this aspect, in Krause’s view, that has taken a significant blow from the abandonment of the Kurdish forces.

Other experts agreed that while the American military’s capacities remain the same, its diplomatic leverage has diminished.

Trump has “earned the reputation of a leader who does not keep his commitments and who leaves our friends when the going gets tough,” Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and former ambassador who teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote in an e-mail from Australia. “He has done enormous damage to our reputation globally.”

Some scholars said that while an eventual withdrawal from the area was not a bad idea, Trump moved with reckless haste.


“US withdrawal is in principle a good decision, but the modality has been entirely wrong-headed: too abrupt, leaving allies in the lurch and enabling the Turkish invasion,” Valentine Moghadam, a professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University, wrote in an e-mail.

One of the most prominent concerns among diplomats and scholars is that the United States will struggle to form alliances with other countries in the future and will be forced to face down challenges alone.

“Everybody is watching, and everybody is seeing that the US is the one who gives up on its allies,” said Ibrahim Al-Assil, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Already Russia has swept into northeastern Syria, streaming video from an abandoned US base where Pringles and animal crackers were left by the Americans in their swift departure, according to The New York Times. The message to onlookers is clear: The United States abandons its friends. Russia sticks around.

By Assil’s count, the Trump administration was the third successive administration to weaken American credibility in the region, which had already suffered from George W. Bush’s bungled Iraq War and Barack Obama’s failure to quickly respond to Syria’s crossing of his “red line” by using chemical weapons.

“What’s going on now is very bad, but it didn’t start now,” Assil said.

As for whether the damage would last, some scholars questioned predictions of long-term catastrophe.


Turkish-backed Syrian fighters burned a flag at the entrance of a tunnel reportedly built by Kurdish fighters in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad.Bark Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images

“I think that the claims of this doing irreparable damage to our credibility are greatly overstated,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Bacevich said the Trump administration’s treatment of the Kurds in this instance was “disgraceful.” But he pointed to nearly a hundred years of betrayals and realignments internationally, including the United States turning on Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist commander who had helped fight World War II, in the late 1940s; John F. Kennedy’s betrayal of the Cuban rebels whom the United States had trained, in the 1960s; and the US abandonment of the South Vietnamese after the Vietnam War appeared to be unwinnable.

It was not even the first time that the United States had abandoned the Kurds, one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a state.

“This is not an unprecedented episode in American statecraft,” Bacevich said. “In every instance, it was possible to rebuild American credibility. You do that by not making a habit of betrayal.”

Syrians who have been recently turned refugees by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria arrived at the Bardarash camp, near the Kurdish city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images

Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.