We are used to Donald Trump rowing back on policies but his rapid volte face on America’s role in Syria was spectacular even by his standards. Earlier this week, the president announced the withdrawal of US troops from the border with Turkey, thereby giving Ankara the green light to invade the Kurdish areas of north-east Syria.
After an outcry around the world, and especially in Washington, Mr Trump then declared the Kurds great friends of America and threatened Turkey with crippling economic sanctions if it “overstepped the mark”, though without saying what that mark is.
“We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” he said. He added that America had a “very good relationship” with Turkey and would welcome President Erdogan to Washington next month.
Instinctively, Mr Trump is an isolationist and wants to bring US troops home from their various deployments before next year’s election. But he risks sending dangerously confusing signals in a volatile area where any conflict can have much wider geopolitical implications.
Aside from the hamfisted diplomacy there is a more straightforward point to be made about the Kurds, who have lost thousands of fighters removing the threat posed by the Islamic State.
It was always to be expected that the Kurds would seek international acceptance of their claim for recognised national status. This is anathema to Turkey for whom the Kurdish PKK is a terrorist group. But a way must be found to help the Kurds, not extirpate them. We owe them that.