Trump’s Middle East Failure Was Made By Obama

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 19 November 2019

President Barack Obama meeting President-elect Donald Trump, 10 November 2016 [image source]

October 2019 may well remain in the popular memory as the inflection point marking the collapse of America’s — and by extension, the West’s — position in at least the northern Middle East. Having been thwarted twice before in efforts to leave Syria, in March and December 2018, President Donald Trump made one more try. For many, ‘Trump betrayed the Kurds’ will be the summary of the events that followed as Turkey made a swift move into the vacuum. The reality is a lot more complicated, and in truth the amount of blame that Trump can take for the events of the last month is rather limited. This catastrophe was baked into the policy of Barack Obama, and Trump’s main fault is to have followed the policy track laid down by his predecessor.


The origins of the current mess in northern Syria can be traced to the US having selected the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed division, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its Syrian partner force against the Islamic State (ISIS). This alliance began in an ad hoc manner when a town the YPG held, Kobani, was besieged shortly after the US anti-ISIS intervention in Syria began in 2014 and the US airstrikes broke the siege. The US then chose to continue the partnership, enabling an expansion of the YPG-held areas, justified as a pragmatic choice since the YPG was the only available force on the ground. This was untrue.

There were rebel groups available, who had already fought ISIS successfully and had greater legitimacy in the largely Arab areas ISIS had occupied. But these groups were also fighting Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Obama was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and a tacit condition was that America would do nothing to threaten Asad’s survival, Tehran’s paramount interest in the region. Obama would wage a narrow ‘counter-terrorism’ war in Syria against ISIS, telling the public this was to avoid being ensnared in the messy underlying war and in private telling the Iranians this was an excellent opportunity for collaboration since the operation aligned with their interests. It was within this Iran-friendly framework that Obama chose the YPG, because of its history of good relations with the pro-Asad coalition.

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