Crazy. Head spinning. Chaotic. Hard to track.
That’s what the flood of news from Washington and the Middle East has been like over the past couple of weeks. The strong temptation is to put one’s head in the sand and zone out.
If we do that, however, we will be aiding and abetting the incursion of Vladimir Putin’s military into Turkey and reinforcement of same in Syria, the slaughter of the Kurds and perhaps even the demise of our American democracy.
Evil winds are swirling the power components on the frontiers of Syria, Turkey and Iraq like desert sands whipped up by a cyclone. U.S. troops in those regions are at risk, caught in the midst of Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish forces, and a hard-to-estimate number of Russians woven in.
Most trenchant and worrisome in this moment may be the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, whose short-lived caliphate (2014-2016) spanning parts of Iraq and northern Syria had been destroyed by the Kurds, guided and aided by U.S. Special Forces.
Kurdish troops had been guarding some 12,000 captured ISIS fighters in detention centers in northern Syria. The sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops ordered by President Donald Trump removed U.S. protections from the Kurds, and so far at least 700 ISIS prisoners have escaped.
A phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was said to have “greenlighted” the unleashing of Turkish bombardments of Kurdish communities and military outposts. Hundreds have already died in the upsurge in fighting, and Kurds talk of being targeted now by “ethnic cleansing.”
(At this writing a five-day ceasefire brokered by Vice President Mike Pence had toned down the shellings and exchange of automatic weapons but may not hold.)
Ironically (or coincidentally?) the Trump call to Erdogan occurred during Putin’s birthday (Oct. 7). Had Putin asked Trump for “a special birthday present”? No strategic analyst has yet determined that this was so.
Nonetheless, even if the call on the Russian president’s birthday was pure coincidence, the result massively favors Putin’s hopes of Russia becoming the dominant force in Syria and also making incursions into Turkey, a NATO member nation.
As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi remarked, in Trump world, “all roads lead to Putin.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chastised Trump in an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling the U.S. troop withdrawal “a grave mistake.”
Reliable reports say Erdogan already has accepted Russian military aid — an outrageous move for a NATO member. Other reports say the Kurds are now doing the same, even though Turkey and the Kurds are opponents on the battlefield.
What a terrible vacuum has apparently been created by the Trump decision — in the middle of the night, and without briefing his own departments of State and Defense — to order U.S. troops to evacuate their positions in Syria.
Back in Washington, former Ambassador to Ukraine Fiona Hill testified before the U.S. House intelligence committee last week that she was fired by Trump without cause and that Trump’s policy has effectively been “hollowing out” the State department.
By that she meant that seasoned professional diplomats have been shunted aside in many instances by Trump associates such as personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in the making of policy affecting U.S. strategic interests.