President Trump’s surprise acquiescence to a Turkish incursion into northern Syria this week has shaken American allies, and not just because it was a betrayal of a loyal partner. What alarmed them even more was his sheer unpredictability.
His inconsistent and rapidly shifting positions in the Middle East have injected a new element of chaos into an already volatile region and have left allies guessing where the United States stands and for how long.
Previous American policymakers were clear about their intentions, said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security adviser.
“This guy is all emotional,” he said. “It is unpredictable.”
The uncertainties only compound simmering worries about the durability of the American commitment to the Middle East.
American presidents have been promising for almost 15 years to reduce the country’s presence in the region, unnerving partners like Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchs that rely on American protection. But few American leaders have ever made and disclosed major foreign policy decisions with the speed and seeming improvisation that Mr. Trump does.
No longer merely worried that Washington might withdraw, analysts say many allies are now concerned that this unpredictable commander in chief could bolt for an exit without warning.
His decision to get out of the way of the Turkish incursion was apparently made on the spur of the moment during a phone call with the Turkish president, surprising many of Mr. Trump’s advisers. It opened the door to a fierce Turkish assault on the American-backed militia led by the Syrian Kurds, which was key to the ground battle to retake territory captured by the Islamic State. Attacking the Kurds, in turn, risks an Islamic State comeback.
This was just the latest in a series of flip-flops in American policy in the region, including two in Syria this year alone. In December, Mr. Trump promised to withdraw the entire contingent of about 2000 American forces there. But he later changed his mind, withdrawing about half.
He has repeatedly warned that the United States was “locked and loaded” for military action against Iran. But when Iran shot down an American surveillance drone this summer, Mr. Trump reversed himself in the final minutes to call off a planned missile strike.
Then last month, he denounced Iran for orchestrating an attack on Saudi oil facilities but declined to take military action. His hesitance made America’s two most important allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, reassess the American commitment to the containment of Iran and, consequently, to their own security.
Critics say that Mr. Trump’s zigzagging policies have emboldened regional foes, unnerved American partners, and invited Russia and various regional players to seek to exert their influence.
“It is chaos,” said Michael Stephens, a scholar of the region at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “The region is in chaos because the hegemonic power does not seem to know what it wants to do, and so nobody else does.”
Even in Britain, which customarily keeps its Middle East policies tightly aligned with its superpower ally, “nobody knows what to do any more, because you don’t know what is coming next,” Mr. Stephens said. “Donald Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire and leaving a lot of us very confused.”
In his public defenses of his decision, Mr. Trump insists he is acting consistently and has suggested that he was fulfilling a campaign promise to get out of open-ended conflicts around the Middle East.
“I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars, where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.
To critics, his shifting defenses of his decision are reminders of his fickleness.
When Mr. Trump backed away from his decision to withdraw all American troops remaining in Syria, he appeared to accept the admonitions of his military chiefs and advisers about the dire consequences of an abrupt pull out.
The presence of American troops in northern Syria had helped to preserve the area as a safe haven for the Kurdish-led militia that has been Washington’s most critical ally on the ground in the fight against ISIS. Now that Kurdish-led militia is acting as jailers for tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families being held in camps and prisons in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
The leaders of neighboring Turkey, which has battled Kurdish separatists at home for decades, saw the Syrian Kurdish militia as a threat and talked openly of a cross border campaign to crush it — if only the American troops got out of the way.
But despite the warnings about a United States interest in protecting its loyal Kurdish allies and in containing the ISIS prisoners, Mr. Trump this week portrayed the plights of the Kurds as someone else’s problem. Referring to the Turks and Kurds as “natural enemies,” he said, “It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own country.”
As soon as Mr. Trump moved the fewer than a hundred American troops from a border area, Turkey unleashed its cross border assault on Wednesday. By Friday, there was evidence that ISIS was already attempting to regroup amid the chaos. Five militants had escaped from a Kurdish-run prison and ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing in a provincial capital.
The decision to allow the Turkish advance came less than a month after Mr. Trump spooked American partners in the region by appearing to back down from another confrontation, that one against Iran.
Mr. Trump has levied sweeping economic sanctions against Iran since May in an attempt to coerce its leaders into accepting strict restrictions on their military capabilities and nuclear energy program. During the escalating confrontation over the sanctions, he has frequently expressed a willingness to use military force against Iran.
Then, according to the administration, Iran retaliated against the American sanctions by orchestrating a missile strike against the most important oil facility of Washington’s most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. And Mr. Trump disclaimed any responsibility.
“That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us,” he said.
Other countries are scurrying to adapt to the new reality.
“I think many nations around the Middle East now are considering major changes in their strategic defense plans because they no longer see the United States as a reliable ally,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, an adviser to the state-sponsored Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.
“I think it will be very difficult to convince nations of the Middle East that the United States is serious about what it says, and this is a major change in the strategic landscape of the Middle East.”
“If you are someone that is a rival on the other side — you’re Iranian, Russian, Turkish, ISIS, Hezbollah — you understand that this is the time for gain,” argued Shimrit Meir, columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
“This is the hour. Because when the president of the United States is going all the way, saying ‘I hate military interference in the Middle East, and this is why I was elected, to stop this’ — then it’s not rocket science for the Iranians to understand that they have a lot of room for maneuver.”
American involvement in the Middle East rose steadily after the United States emerged as a superpower at the end of World War II.
But since the American military presence in the region reached its apex with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, presidents from both parties have tried to cut back.
President Obama sought to pull out of Afghanistan but instead sent a surge of more troops to try to achieve enough stability to ease a withdrawal — a gambit that failed to achieve that goal.
He withdrew American troops from Iraq in 2011. But his critics say the pullout enabled the emergence of the Islamic State, which seized a large portion of Iraq and Syria in 2014, drawing the United States military back in.
Mr. Obama’s experience might now serve as a cautionary tale to Mr. Trump, who risks allowing a resurgence of the Islamic State by pulling back in Syria, argued Michele Dunne, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama “was terribly consistent — he said from the beginning that he wanted to pull the U.S. troops out of Iraq.”
Phillip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Middle East coordinator for the Obama White House, acknowledged that pulling back from the Middle East turned out to be easier said than done. But he said he had marveled that President Trump had managed to campaign promising both to pull back from Middle Eastern conflicts and at the same time to push back more aggressively against regional foes.
“You can’t do those two things at the same time,” Mr. Gordon said, and in Mr. Trump’s policies toward the conflicts in Syria and with Iran this fall “that enormous contradiction is coming back to haunt him.”
Critics say that the Trump administration has been inconsistent toward the Middle East before. When Persian Gulf neighbors sought to isolate Qatar in 2017, members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet urged them to end the dispute but the president himself applauded it.
He later ordered airstrikes against Syria to punish its government for using chemical weapons against rebel groups but he failed to respond after Washington confirmed another use of chemical weapons earlier this year.
When a Libyan militia leader launched an attack on the country’s internationally recognized government six months ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out against it. President Trump, a few days later, announced that he had called the militia leader and commended his “ongoing counterterrorism efforts.”
Mr. al-Rubaie, the former Iraqi national security adviser, said that two wars, billions of dollars in spending, and the expense of thousands of Americans lives should have made Iraq the “crown” of United States policy on the Middle East. But Mr. Trump “doesn’t see Iraq” and instead focuses only on the degree of Iranian influence.
The Iraqis “feel let down. They feel that these people have left them and left the country. They left them high and dry,” he said.
“For the Americans, their friends are disposable,” he said. “The Americans, you look for them and they look for the closest exit. You turn around and you don’t find them.”