When Diplomacy Disappears

The Trump Administration’s lack of engagement has made the terrorist threat worse.

A Turkish tank on a hilltop overlooking the Turkey-Syria border on Oct. 9, 2014. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)
A Turkish tank on a hilltop overlooking the Turkey-Syria border on Oct. 9, 2014. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

When counterterrorism experts insist that effective counterterrorism is about more than just military force, people often don’t take us seriously. Sure, the skeptics say, you might pay lip service to a diplomatic approach, but, really, you mean dropping bombs abroad, perhaps coupled with making arrests at home.

They are wrong. Having spent two years working at the White House National Security Council (NSC), I know that counterterrorism officials are serious when they insist that the smart use of military force is just one of many necessary tools. Right now, the world is witnessing just how important effective diplomacy can be when fighting terrorism — by seeing what happens when such diplomacy is botched. Today, the Trump administration’s inability to continue managing the tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds is providing the Islamic State with the time and space to regroup and pose a resurgent threat to United States and the rest of the world.

The U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thus far been effective because America has had capable partners on the ground. In Syria, by far the most useful partners have been the Syrian Kurds. They’ve suffered horrific fatalities and injuries as they’ve removed Islamic State forces from cities such as Raqqa where the terrorist group once enjoyed a safe haven to plot terrorist attacks in the region and beyond and to inspire attacks globally — including in the United States in cities such as New York and Orlando, Florida.

But Turkey has felt increasingly threatened as the Syrian Kurds have gained momentum and approached Turkey’s borders. That’s because the Turkish government regards the Syrian Kurds as indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish organization that is responsible for decades of terrorist attacks inside Turkey. So, with more weapons coming into the hands of the Syrian Kurds and less distance between them and Turkey, Ankara has grown increasingly uncomfortable.

While serving in the U.S. government, my colleagues and I worked hard to manage Turkish fears and Syrian Kurdish ambitions from the earliest days of the campaign against the Islamic State. At times, the tensions would grow so fierce that they’d seem unmanageable, calling into question whether the United States could really maintain both a critical base for counterterrorist operations at Incirlik, near the Turkish city of Adana, and the indispensable assistance of the Kurds on the ground in Syria. But, time and time again, assiduous and deft diplomacy — coordinated by the White House, implemented by the secretary of state and a special presidential envoy, and assisted by military leaders — would avert a looming crisis and avoid forcing the United States to choose between two partners, neither of which we could afford to lose. In concrete terms, as former Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged publicly, this meant direct engagement by him and President Barack Obama to assure the Turkish leadership that Washington’s commitment to the Kurds was not open-ended.

This sort of high-level diplomacy is no longer the norm, it seems. In January, Turkey unleashed a bombing campaign against the Kurds who had gathered in the northern Syrian city of Afrin. It was bad enough to see two U.S. partners pummeling one another, but what happened next was even worse for the United States: The Kurds, who’d been pursuing the Islamic State into its remaining Syrian safe haven in the Euphrates River Valley, turned back. The Kurds were very clear about why they retreated: They had to protect their brethren against Turkey, and as one of their leaders said, they felt that the U.S.-led coalition had “let us down.”

The stakes are huge. Thanks to the herculean efforts of two U.S. administrations, Islamic State forces have been cleared from almost all of the territory they once held in Iraq and Syria. The group has been squeezed by the U.S.-led coalition into a small area, where it still has thousands of fighters. But now it has the space and time to refresh, regroup, and re-emerge — because U.S. diplomacy has failed.

The dangers of giving the Islamic State a chance to recruit and to plot attacks are obvious; yet in the entirety of President Donald Trump’s address to the nation announcing strikes against targets in Syria associated with the regime’s chemical weapons program, Trump didn’t say a word about this potential disaster-in-waiting. That’s presumably because, having lost America’s proxy ground forces, the White House simply doesn’t have a plan, either for accomplishing the counterterrorism mission still ahead in Syria or for resolving the Syrian situation more broadly.

Botched diplomacy can worsen the terrorist threat faced by Americans at home and abroad. The U.S. government’s relationships — with both the Turks and Kurds — that had been so carefully managed in earlier years seem to have fallen apart. In an administration where the secretary of state hollowed out his own department and the NSC has shied away from its long-standing role of actively coordinating among the various arms of the U.S. government’s national security apparatus, it’s no surprise that the delicate dance could no longer be maintained. But it’s a problem because, without an able ground partner, it’s unclear how the United States and its allies can finish off the Islamic State. And, as the group’s emergence from the ashes of its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, taught us, the final stage of extinguishing a terrorist group can be the hardest.

How did we get to this point? It’s impossible to know from the outside, but my fear is that the sustained focus on diplomacy, especially from the president and his cabinet, which was essential to managing America’s relationships with Turkey and the Kurds, as well as the inherent tension between the two sides, simply couldn’t be maintained under an administration that was so disorganized and so distracted by infighting, staff turnover, and legal troubles.

Diplomacy is in many ways the practice of ego soothing and interest placating — and that’s what the administration would have had to do with both the Turks and the Syrian Kurds to avoid the current situation. This delicate balance simply could not hold if Trump wasn’t regularly calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and preparing assiduously to ensure he said the right things, if Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, wasn’t in near-constant communication with his Turkish counterpart (and seen as speaking for the president) and if high-ranking military and diplomatic officials weren’t visiting in person with key Syrian Kurdish commanders on the ground. That sort of multifront diplomacy takes serious and sustained commitment and coordination from the NSC and top White House staff and, at key moments, from the occupant of the Oval Office himself. It appears to have fallen apart.

Some critics may claim that even the most effective U.S. diplomacy couldn’t have stopped the simmering tension between the Turks and Syrian Kurds from boiling over into violent confrontation. But recent history suggests otherwise. Indeed, the most likely tipping point would have been in May 2017, when Washington made the decision to arm the Syrian Kurds in preparation for their assault on Raqqa. At the time, many observers predicted that such a move might set in motion a chain of events that, in the words of Soner Cagaptay and Andrew Tabler, “would effectively paralyze U.S.-Turkish military ties for years to come.” But it didn’t — most likely because behind-the-scenes diplomacy kept the Turkish response confined to angry public denunciations of Washington’s decision.

The tensions in Afrin that began in January and ultimately escalated into outright war should have been more manageable from a diplomatic perspective than the original U.S. decision to arm the Kurds. It didn’t involve crossing as stark a Turkish red line as arming the Kurds. Yet, despite facing a situation that was more conducive to diplomacy, the Trump administration failed to restrain the Turks and thus failed to keep the Kurds from turning away from the mission of fighting the Islamic State in order to support their brethren facing Turkish bombardment in Afrin.

This failure reveals something else about national security policy under Trump. There’s a lot of continuity in counterterrorism policy from the Obama administration and even from the George W. Bush administration, from the use of armed drones to the utilization of the criminal justice system to try terrorists rather than military commissions, at least so far. But even as counterterrorism continues to depend on partnerships, the Trump administration is endangering those partnerships that matter most.

Sometimes it appears deliberate, such as prompting Chad — through its bizarre inclusion in Trump’s third travel ban — to withdraw its troops from the fight against Boko Haram in Niger. (Although Chad was recently taken off the travel ban list, there’s been no indication its troops will return to fighting Boko Haram anytime soon.) Sometimes it appears to be the result of neglect, as with the collapse of Washington’s delicate balancing act between the Turks and Kurds. And sometimes it seems that sheer indecision is preventing the Trump administration from maintaining a delicate set of partnerships both inside and outside a country beset with terrorist threats, which appears the case in Libya. In all of these scenarios, counterterrorism partnerships will fail if the president doesn’t have faith in his partners simply because he prefers a world in which it’s his way or the highway.

Ultimately, an approach to counterterrorism that relies on partners for on-the-ground operations simply can’t be squared with an “America First” attitude. Many foreign nations are willing to join the fight against terrorism and to shoulder dangerous responsibilities in exchange for U.S. assistance. But foreign nations do not want to be bullied, browbeaten, or badmouthed.

Fifteen months into Trump’s presidency, America First is looking increasingly like an excuse for abdicating global leadership. This approach will have grave consequences for the current campaign against the Islamic State, and it will do long-term harm to America’s counterterrorism partnerships globally.

Despite the tough-on-terrorism rhetoric emanating from the White House, that’s a recipe for making America less safe.

Joshua A. Geltzer is the executive director and visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a fellow at New America. He served from to 2015 to 2017 as the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and, before that, as deputy legal advisor to the NSC.

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