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EDITORIAL

Trump’s dangerous blunder in Syria endangers US ally

President Donald Trump with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in June.
President Donald Trump with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in June.

With two phone calls and a tweet, President Trump has engineered the exit of US troops from Syria, appeased not one but at least two autocrats, and made the world a more dangerous place.

This is what passes for US foreign policy today. And in the process, Trump has lost Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, one of the few grown-ups in the Neverland that the White House has become, and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, both of whom resigned after the president’s decision.

All of this began following a call between Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey last week, after which Trump announced to a surprised military that ISIS had been “defeated” and he was bringing home the 2,000 US troops now on the ground in Syria.

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US forces, in conjunction with the 72-nation coalition and Kurdish forces within Syria, have indeed succeeded in reducing the territory once held by the would-be caliphate, and with it much of the Islamic State threat. But reducing the threat is not eradicating it, and to think otherwise is hopelessly naive. And even those who support a withdrawal would agree that it should be done carefully: You can’t have an exit strategy without a
strategy.

Enter our hopelessly naive president, who ignores the advice of his entire national security team, thumbs his nose at longtime allies, but wins the praise of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who insisted late last week, “Donald’s right.”

Only the last-minute pleas of US military leaders, who insisted on an orderly timetable for withdrawal, have kept this exit from looking like the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. In his second phone call with Erdogan in the past week, Trump tweeted Sunday that the two discussed “the slow & highly coordinated” troop pullout.

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The danger is that not only could ISIS flare back up, but also that the sudden void created by the withdrawal could threaten US allies. Turkish troops are massing in northern Syria, with more crossing the border daily as they eye a possible offensive against Kurdish forces — yes, the same forces which have fought so bravely side by side with Americans against ISIS. It is one thing to give up the hope of regime change in Syria and know that the detested Bashar al-Assad — he who has gassed his own citizens — remains in charge. It is quite another to betray the Kurds and leave them vulnerable to an assault by Erdogan’s Turkey, which considers the militia a terrorist organization.

US forces have successfully prevented such Turkish “mission creep” in the region, but no longer.

Another big “winner” in this foreign policy debacle is, of course, Iran which has tens of thousands of “proxies” in the region fully prepared to fill the vacuum being created by this precipitous withdrawal of American forces. Iran’s alliance with the Assad regime and Russia could shift the balance of power permanently in the region.

Such is the power of one seemingly small exercise of presidential power — not to mention presidential peevishness.

There are few ways to curb the powers of the commander in chief, however poorly executed. But 2019 will be the year when Congress can and must reassert its own foreign policy role — a role it abdicated nearly a decade ago when it failed to exercise its right to approve American involvement in Syria. The consequences of that failure of courage have now come home to roost.

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The next Congress must make clear that a Turkish attack on our allies the Kurds will result in sanctions. That human rights violations by any of the parties involved — and that would include the Assad regime, which is reportedly murdering thousands of political prisoners — will be punished.

There was a time when America stood for something on the world stage, when allies could count on this country to keep its word and its commitments. It will fall to Congress in the year ahead to help pick up the foreign policy slack until there is a change of occupant in the White House.