Like plucking a thread from a finely-woven Turkish rug, President Donald Trump’s precipitate announcement that the US was effectively abandoning a Kurdish militia could lead to an unravelling of that part of the Middle East in which various forces have collided since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.
This is a humanitarian disaster in the making, even apart from its implications for America’s shaky reputation as a reliable ally across the region. Hasty US action taken without consultation with its allies, including principally the Kurds, after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan risks resumption of bloody conflict in which tens of thousands of lives will be in peril. There is the additional risk of reigniting a wider Syrian civil war that is hardly contained in any case.
Turkey has been quick to take advantage of a White House announcement it was pulling back from north-eastern Syria where US ally, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control territory in which 70,000 refugees are cooped up in a vast refugee settlement. The Turkish military has begun shelling SDP supply lines to Iraq in preparation for a move across the border to establish a so-called “safe zone” where it plans to relocate two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil. Adding vastly to complications, the SDP is detaining 10-12000 Islamic state fighters in rudimentary prison camps across territory under its control. If this all falls apart, chaos would descend once again on that part of the Middle East where a US-Kurdish alliance had established relative calm.
In a raw geopolitical game in one of the most volatile corners of the world it is hard to exaggerate the degree of irresponsibility displayed by an American president in this instance. Under enormous criticism, particularly from his own Republican colleagues, Trump is resorting to bombast. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will total destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),’’ Trump tweeted.