It was three in the morning when a 40-year-old Syrian aid worker living in Qamishli, a city in northeast Syria, first heard the sound of helicopters from above.
“People were terrified, we had no idea what was happening,” the young man, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said in a phone call with the PBS NewsHour. “We didn’t know then if they were Turkish or Syrian or Russian planes.”
It turns out, they were American forces leaving northeast Syria.
This week thousands of American troops left northern Syria as part of a Trump administration decision to remove nearly all American forces from the country. U.S. forces had been in northern Syria working with Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS since 2015. Residents who felt abandoned by the troops they once called partners pelted U.S. military trucks with stones and rotten vegetables as they made their way into Iraq, while some Syrians held signs saying the U.S. betrayed them. The announcement of U.S. troop withdrawals came as a shock to many, and left some U.S. allies concerned that this may be a warning sign for them.
Analysts say the lack of transparency around the president’s decision to leave Syria shocked America’s closest allies; deviates from historical and established foreign policy norms; and impacts the the U.S.’ perception as a reliable partner.
But the U.S.’ relationship with the Kurds, who are a stateless people, is different from that of the U.S. and their major nation-state allies–some of whom have to continue to rely on the U.S. for security.
“When allies and security partners weigh American actions, they do so first and foremost within the framework of their own interests with the United States,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Democratic and Republican Administrations.
Miller added that although most of our allies may think the president’s decision was erratic, he does not think U.S. partners worry the same type of abandonment will happen to them.
Still, allies will be closely watching the U.S.’ next moves, worrying about Trump’s impulsive behavior and the transactional, often spectacle-like nature of foreign policy agreements he tends to strike.
“This is not the first time that the U.S. has sent a message of inconsistency, but this was a particularly egregious case,” said Rob Malley, President of the International Crisis Group. “Trump elevates this to a new level because of the way in which it happened, and the way in which he justified it.”
Other analysts saw the decision to withdraw from Syria as unavoidable. “It’s an unfortunate moment in American foreign policy but I don’t regard the president’s decision as the cause of the misfortune,” said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson institute.
“I think the alliance we had with the YPG in northern Syria was a mistaken alliance to begin with,” he said, adding that the outcome in northern Syria was inevitable once the United States chose to ally itself with the Kurds during the Obama administration.
In what appeared to be a modification of the decision on Sunday, The New York Times reported that President Trump now plans to keep a small group of 200 troops stationed in northeast Syria to protect oil fields. That does not, however, help protect the Kurdish forces who were once in northeast Syria fighting ISIS with the U.S. The other approximately 800 U.S. soldiers have been repositioned from bases once shared with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to ones in northern and western Iraq. Iraq has signaled that it does not want those U.S. forces in the country for long.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Turkish airstrikes have been reported across Northeast Syria, and thousands of civilians have fled the bombardment. The United Nations has reported over 160,000 Syrians have fled their homes in northeast Syria during the Turkish incursion.
“This is abandonment from the Americans – their withdrawal meant chaos from all sides,” the anonymous Syrian aid worker told the Newshour. “Where am I supposed to run to now?”
This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, met in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi and struck an agreement that would facilitate the withdrawal of all Syrian Kurdish forces,known as the YPG, and their weapons from the Turkish border.
The response by U.S. allies
How are U.S. allies around the world feeling as they watch the U.S. move out, and Russian influence move into Syria? Here’s an overview:
U.S. and Turkish forces are not the only NATO countries fighting in Syria – Britain and France were also part of the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and have ground forces there.
France’s Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly said the U.S. withdrawal could mean the resurgence of ISIS. The sentiment was echoed by European Union policy chief Frederica Mogherini, who said the terrorist group “could re-find its breathing space inside that territory”.
French special forces have fought alongside Americans in Syria for years, and after the decision to withdraw American troops, French President Emmanual Macron ordered measures be taken to “ensure the security of French military and civilian personnel present in the zone.”
“When you’re fighting with partners, you make decisions together. In together, out together – but there was no consultation on getting out of northern Syria,” said Charles Kupchan, former European Affairs director on the National Security Council.
President Trump has questioned the effectiveness of NATO since the start of his term, Kupchan noted, adding that both France and Germany have taken action to build defense cooperation among European nations.
Despite their discontent with the U.S., European NATO members are still beholden to the alliance “in part because they don’t have another choice,” Kupchan said.
One goal of Turkey’s operation is to send millions of refugees who are currently in Turkey back into territory it would control in northeast Syria. Earlier this month, Erdogan threatened to send over three million Syrian refugees into European countries, a threat he has used in years past to pressure Europe to comply with his foreign policy moves, or to pressure them to allow Turkey into the European Union, which it still has not.
“I think the broader concern is where is U.S. foreign policy heading, and is there a steady hand on the steering wheel? That is a legitimate concern,” Kupchan added.
Poland, a strong U.S. ally, particularly under the Trump administration, even showed concern. Daniel Fried was the former assistant secretary of state for european affairs for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
“I have senior officials behind closed doors asking me, ‘If this is how America treats its comrades in the battlefield, can America be counted on?’” said Fried.
After the U.S. left the Kurds behind in Syria, some in Israel, arguably one of America’s closest allies, are wondering if they can depend on American protection, said Dan Shapiro, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
“Members [within Israel] of the U.S. camp have less to fall back on now,” said Shapiro. “They carry more of the burden against the dangerous actors in the region.”
Israel has relied on the Kurds as a strategic ally in the region since the mid-20th century, at first to suppress Iran, and then to curb extremism. The U.S. became considerably involved with the latter goal, fighting first alongside Iraqi Kurds in 2014, then with Syrian Kurds to eradicate ISIS. Tens of thousands of Kurds in both countries died fighting and under the brutal rule of ISIS.
But as tension has increased, Trump has sought to redefine what U.S. presence will look like in the Middle East.
Most recently, Tehran downed a U.S. drone over Iranian airspace and attacked two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil fields. Neither event prompted military backlash from the White House, contributing to Israeli fears. It was only several months later that Trump committed to sending troops to Saudi Arabia.
After U.S. troops began pulling out of northeast Syria last week, Israeli media was “rife with people openly asking the question, ‘can we we rely on U.S. commitments? Are we next to be abandoned?’” Shapiro said.
Still, Israel is a major U.S. partner in the Middle East, and is the largest recipient of American foreign military assistance– $3.3 billion in 2019, and analysts say the nature of the Israel-U.S. relationship will not change.
“We can’t compare our relationship to the Kurds to our relationship to the state of Israel,” Miller said. “Do these Israelis think to themselves, ‘you know I wish Trump had not done this in Syria because we have interests there?’ Or do they say ‘uh oh this represents a fundamental abandonment of America’s security commitments to us?’”
The concern spreads far beyond the Middle East.
The U.S.’s greatest threat in Pacific Asia is North Korea thanks to the aggressive nation’s status as newly-minted nuclear power and its impulsive leader, Kim Jong Un. Trump has made it clear that he will be able to strike a deal with North Korea and bring troops home from South Korea. He remains optimistic despite three meetings in Hanoi, Singapore and Stockholm that brought little progress toward an agreement with Kim’s North.
Particularly in the midst of unresolved tension and continued missile testing by North Korea, some analysts say that Trump may abandon its South Korean partners for the sake of a hasty peace deal. In light of his decision to leave northeast Syria, some analysts say that the move seems possible now more than ever.
“I mean, nobody can feel comfortable about this,” said Victor Cha, former Asia affairs director on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “South Korea has fought with the United States in every war since the Korean War. But you know, for Trump, that doesn’t count for anything, right?”
Although South Korea is a crucial partner in negotiating peace on the peninsula, Trump’s foreign policy proposals have been focused on raising the price for U.S. military presence there. This style breaks from fostering cooperation and instead puts pressure on South Korea to adhere to the steeper costs in exchange for American defense.
President Trump demanded in December 2018 that South Korea pay five times the current amount to host American troops on the peninsula, raising the cost from over $1 billion to $5 billion. Earlier this year, Seoul rejected the idea that it doesn’t pay enough, claiming it covers over half the $2 billion it currently costs to maintain U.S. military bases, not including the rent-free land.
The U.S.’s defense partnerships are “all transactional, it’s all about how it benefits the U.S. and any decision can be turned around in one day,” Malley said.
A cost sharing agreement was not reached by the December 31, 2018 deadline, and was postponed a year– set for December 2019. Cha says that the fast approaching deadline, Trump’s eagerness to strike a peace deal, and the impeachment inquiry are all the “perfect storm” for a rash decision to be made, with huge political consequences.
But these concerns are less tied to the Syria decision and more to President Trump’s moves in the Asia Pacific region specifically. “The Japanese and South Koreans have concerns about Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong Un and [him] overlooking short range missile tests,” Miller said.
“I think the worst case is a bad nuclear deal,” said Cha, currently the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And then Trump declares peace on the Korean Peninsula because he’ll say it’s the best deal ever.”
“Trump’s America first policy which seems to put American allies last – I don’t deny that this has stressed and strained relations with allies,” Miller said, adding “but in the end our alliances with these security partners and allies be there long after Donald Trump is.”
To the people on the ground in northeast Syria, however, their future remains in limbo. In a call to the PBS Newshour Thursday, the Syrian aid worker said the Kurdistan Regional Government had closed the Syria-Iraq border to civilians fleeing, and smugglers were charging $1,000 per person to bring people into the country. He said they were fleeing out of fear of another Turkish attack and Syrian regime troops.
“I’m so tired from all of it,” the Syrian aid worker told the Newshour. “The anticipation of never knowing what’s next keeps us awake at night.”