Donald Trump’s decision to declare victory in Syria and pull US troops out of the country is shocking on many levels. Perhaps the greatest shock is that it undermines one of the few, hitherto unshakeable, principles of how the world works: there are no friendships in diplomacy, only national interests. In suddenly leaving Syria, Trump, above all, threatens the United States’ core interests: he is throwing away battlefield gains, leaving his country without any leverage against global rival Russia and regional rival Iran; he is subverting every alliance that America has and will have; he is trashing the authority, expertise, confidence and sacrifices of America’s soldiers, diplomats and intelligence services; he is making the world more dangerous, to the detriment of all, including the United States.
The principle that all powers care only for their own interests is the bedrock of international affairs because it is cynical, because it allows no room for wishful thinking and false hopes. Therefore, it is no surprise that, under Trump, the United States would betray the Kurds, just as his predecessors had done in 1975 and in 1991. Even the Kurdish forces who have done most of the fighting against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would have expected this, even though they hoped this time would be different. But Trump’s action is not mere cynicism, it is folly. Another fundamental principle of human behavior, from the most primitive societies till today, is our need to help friends and harm enemies. Because, to be able to protect our interests we need a network of allies, and for our allies to be effective, they must believe that our bond helps them deal with their enemies. Will America’s allies look at it the same way now?
It is revealing that the American withdrawal from Syria has been welcomed by Vladimir Putin and will be most welcome also in Damascus, Tehran and wherever the thousands of surviving members of the Islamic State are hiding. Trump announced his decision shortly after a telephone conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which the Turkish president repeated his demand that US troops in Syria get out of the way as Turkish forces intend to attack their Kurdish allies. Erdogan (who never wastes an opportunity to vilify the United States) and Trump also agreed on a new arms deal worth 3.5 billion euros. If Trump thinks that this will make Erdogan loosen his ties with Putin, or that he will now ease his pressure on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince over the Jamal Khashoggi murder, he will be disappointed. Trump may be set on wasting American prestige and power, but others – like Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Islamic State group – are banking on it.