Late on Sunday night, the Trump administration announced its decision to not interfere with a planned Turkish military campaign into northern Syria, leaving American-allied Kurdish forces vulnerable to a regime in Turkey that considers them a terrorist group. The news astonished foreign policy experts, drew criticism from Republican lawmakers, and even prompted the dependable White House cheerleaders at Fox & Friends to engage in some awkward on-air bickering. "What kind of message is that to the next ally that wants to side with us?" asked Brian Kilmeade to his co-hosts. "Now we say, 'Good luck. Good luck surviving.'"
On Monday, Turkey began its invasion of Syria in earnest, launching a series of airstrikes against a group that been protected by the United States armed forces less than 24 hours earlier. The Trump administration's decision will almost certainly prolong the Syrian Civil War, and may allow the same Islamic State terrorists that American troops spent years fighting to regain a foothold in the war-torn region. Here's what we know about how the burgeoning conflict got started.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are a stateless ethnic group dispersed primarily throughout the Middle Eastern nations of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, and Syria. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, and the estimated total population of between 25 and 35 million makes them one of the world's largest stateless peoples.
What is their relationship to Turkey?
They have long been subject to persecution by Turkey's government, which has at various points functionally banned the Kurdish language and even the words "Kurd" and "Kurdistan," purportedly in an effort to crack down on insurgent groups fighting for an independent Kurdish state. Since 1984, more than 40,000 people have been killed during the conflict, according to The Guardian.
A ceasefire between the Turkish government and the opposition Kurdistan Workers' Party fell apart in 2015, and in the aftermath of a failed coup against Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016, Erdoğan's government ramped up its persecution of Kurds within its borders, using its emergency powers to jail Kurdish politicians and shutter Kurdish media outlets.
How are the Kurds connected to the United States?
The country in which Kurds have obtained the most self-determination is Iraq. After a U.S.-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government formalized and governs a handful of northern provinces largely free from Baghdad's interference. In Syria, where Kurds have also historically been subject to state-sanctioned discrimination, Kurdish fighters are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that is one of several coalitions embroiled in the ongoing, multi-front Syrian Civil War. For the past several years, the U.S. has provided both direct and in-kind assistance to SDF forces as part of the U.S.'s efforts to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces in the area—even as a more traditional civil war raged all around them.
How did Turkish president Erdoğan convince Trump to take action?
Turkey has never been thrilled about the U.S.'s support for SDF. And since Donald Trump's declaration last December that American forces had at last accomplished this goal—defeating ISIL in Syria, he said at the time, was the "only reason for being there" during his presidency—he seems to have made way for pulling out.
Over the past few weeks, the Turkish president has stepped up his efforts to lobby the Trump administration to pull out of northern Syria, itching to move his forces deeper into SDF-occupied territory. (In addition to his country's aforementioned general hostility towards the Kurds, Erdoğan wants to set up a "safe zone" where he can put some of the one million Syrian refugees that have poured into Turkey during the war.) Erdoğan almost got his way last year, when Trump accompanied his declaration of victory with a surprise announcement that all American troops in Syria—2,000 at the time—would come home. Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, then the special presidential envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIL, both resigned in protest.
In February, the White House relented a bit, agreeing to leave about 400 troops on the ground as part of an international team of "observers and monitors." But yesterday's decision indicates the administration has abandoned even that modest purpose. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the [Turkish military] operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” the White House said in a statement. Already, the U.S. is pulling back between 100 and 150 troops in order to, as an anonymous official put it to the New York Times, "get out of the way" of the Turkish forces en route.
Do we know anything about the specific conversation between Trump and Erdoğan?
A National Security Council member told Newsweek that Trump got "rolled" on Sunday afternoon's call; was "out-negotiated" by his counterpart; and "only endorsed the troop withdraw to make it look like we are getting something—but we are not getting something," the source told Newsweek. "The U.S. national security has entered a state of increased danger for decades to come because the president has no spine and that's the bottom line."
How will this affect the Syrian Civil War?
The U.S.'s sudden absence will almost certainly create a power vacuum that the fragile region cannot withstand at this moment in time. Forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have powerful allies in Russia and Iran, while the primary opposition coalition is supported by Turkey. The U.S.'s rapidly-dwindling presence means that it is a progressively less meaningful check on all of these groups, thereby increasing the likelihood of bloodier warfare. To protect themselves against Turkey, Kurdish forces could even form an alliance with Assad's government, further strengthening Russian and Iranian interests. "America’s attitude will create a negative impact on the whole region, and what has been built up here, the peace and the stability in this region—this American decision will destroy all the advances, particularly with regards to security,” an SDF spokesperson said in a statement.
What was the American reaction to the White House's announcement?
U.S. lawmakers of both parties also expressed alarm on Monday. Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump's choice "deeply disturbing," and a "foolish attempt to appease an authoritarian strongman." Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell urged the president to reconsider, warning that "major new conflict between Turkey and our partners in Syria would seriously risk damaging" the U.S.-Turkey relationship. "American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal," he said. Even South Carolian senator Lindsey Graham called this news a "stain on America's honor," and predicted that a Senate resolution opposing Trump's withdrawal would receive "strong bipartisan support."
The decision has implications for the U.S. far beyond its involvement in the Syrian Civil War. More than 11,000 SDF fighters have died fighting alongside American troops against ISIL, according to The Guardian.. By pulling troops from the front lines now, Trump is effectively throwing our SDF allies to the wolves. As McGurk, the former envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition, noted on Twitter, this choice speaks volumes to the international community about the value of entering into alliances with the U.S. in the future. "Trump today said we could 'crush ISIS again' if it regenerated," he wrote. "With who? What allies would sign up? Who would fight on his assurances?
Is ISIL in fact "regenerating"?
Despite Trump's declarations to the contrary, yes. ISIL fighters have resumed deadly attacks near the pockets of territory they still hold, and the New York Times reports they are working at securing new sources of funding. About 70,000 people are currently held in SDF-controlled prison camp—mostly wives and children of ISIL fighters, but ISIL sympathizers, too. Last week, a high-level Kurdish military official told the Washington Post that the SDF was in danger of losing control of the camp to the prisoners. On Twitter, McGurk cautioned that Turkey is both unwilling to and incapable of managing the camp, and that a Turkish takeover would allow ISIL to continue mounting its comeback.
Does Donald Trump know about these hazards?
It seems like he does. In a lengthy tweetstorm defending his choice on Monday, Trump explained the Kurds "have been fighting Turkey for decades," and that he had "held off this fight" for long enough. "WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN," he explained. "Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out."
How has Trump responded to the likelihood of an extended Turkish military campaign against the Kurds?
With vague threats of economic annihilation. "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 totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)," he tweeted Monday.
Trump's reasoning is an extension of his "America First" mantra: If he sees no immediate American interest in fighting a war, there is no reason for America to be involved anymore. What he fails to appreciate is that the presence of U.S. troops can be what prevents a war from getting bigger and more deadly and more terrible—and that abandoning allies so recklessly will do serious damage to America's ability to fight wars in the future.
Whether it’s Paul Manafort or Hunter Biden and Donald Trump, Ukraine seems to play a disproportionately popular role in our nation’s recent controversies. Julia Ioffe explains why the same small country is increasingly involved in America’s political chaos.
Originally Appeared on GQ