photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy The White House
One of the most important skills in negotiations is being prepared to walk away from a bad deal. Another, however, is being ready to commit to a good one.
The Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by then-President Barack Obama was a very bad deal. It sacrificed the West’s long-held primary goal of preventing the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon for a temporary delay in its progress toward that aim, and rewarded Tehran for that delay with an immediate lifting of most economic sanctions. The cash windfall helped finance Iran’s continuing campaign to spread its influence in the region through non-nuclear violence. President Donald Trump was right to walk away from that mistake and reimpose financially crippling sanctions in a bid to force Iran to permanently forgo development of both nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile means to deliver them.
But this month, Trump followed that sensible move with a strategic folly of his own. He announced and then ordered the pullout of about 1,000 U.S. troops from the sliver of northern Syria controlled by our erstwhile allies, the Kurdish forces who were instrumental in defeating Islamic State group and who continued to guard thousands of the terrorist organization’s imprisoned members and their dependents. This was Trump’s way of greenlighting the invasion of the region by Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views the Syrian Kurds as de facto allies to or members of his own country’s separatist Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK. Turkey regards the Kurds as terrorists.
Politicians of both U.S. parties, as well as many current and former military officers, immediately warned Trump that the pullout would be an epic strategic disaster. The president proceeded anyway, and his critics were almost immediately proved correct.
The Kurds were forced into a strategic alliance with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, whose forces have repeatedly gassed and bombed his own citizens over the past eight years in an attempt to put down a rebellion against his dictatorship. We had supported the Kurds in keeping Assad’s forces out of the border region, and away from the Kurdish and Arab populations there. Now the Kurds have little choice but to open the gates to Syria, and its Russian- and Iranian-backed military, to protect themselves from the Turks.
Vladimir Putin wasted no time in sending his own military into some of the space vacated by the American forces. Now Russian troops, allied with an Iranian-backed Syrian dictator we oppose, are helping to protect the Kurdish fighters we supported until we abruptly abandoned them. The Russian troops are protecting those Kurds from the invading troops of a NATO country, while sitting immediately on NATO’s southern flank. Wonderful.
It gets worse. Rather than have 1,000 American troops more or less painlessly deterring Turkey from its reckless aggression, Trump must resort to economic sanctions against Turkey. He began by reimposing relatively mild trade sanctions and personal travel restrictions on a handful of Turkish officials. But Trump reserved the right to escalate up to the point of cutting Turkey off from the dollar-oriented global financial system, just as Iran is currently isolated from it.
All this would have the effect of pushing Turkey, a NATO member, into at least an informal alignment with Iran and Russia. This would turn the Black Sea into what amounts to a Russian-controlled lake. Crimea, already seized by Russia in 2014, becomes the focal point of Russian control of this inland sea. NATO and European Union members Romania and Bulgaria, along with Ukraine, are left to the mercy of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Turkey has the power to keep American-allied forces out by closing the Bosporus strait, which runs through Istanbul. It’s the 19th-century Great Game, updated with 21st-century weapons of mass destruction.
Every negotiation involves a trade-off. You give up something to get something else. Trump walked away from a stable situation along the Turkey-Syria border, bought at the cost of maintaining a small number of troops who were not in any imminent danger as long as he warned Erdogan that U.S. air power would repel any invasion. That was a good deal.
In return for giving it up, Trump got the strategic mess of driving Turkey closer to Iran and Russia, even as he managed to push Turkey’s opponents, the Kurds, in the very same direction. All the bad actors involved – Assad’s Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Erdogan – win. Only the Kurds, the Americans and NATO lose. It was hard to top the Obama-backed 2015 nuclear deal for shortsightedness, but Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds will likely accomplish exactly that.
Trump had a strong bargaining position, but he gave it up because he got tired of being haggled. Not a good performance from the guy who wrote the book.