Even for a president well-known for his seat-of-the-pants policy decisions, Donald Trump’s plan to allow US forces in Syria to step aside and open the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in the country has caused alarm in just about every quarter.
Over the course of a few hours on Monday, the president managed to upend his own Middle East policy, blindside foreign allies and, in a rare series of rebukes, prompt Republican allies to speak out against him.
Even Trump’s favourite news show, Fox and Friends, was in uproar over the decision.
In response Trump has stood his ground, citing his “great and unmatched wisdom” whilst simultaneously abandoning one of the US’s best allies in the region.
Here’s what it’s all about...
Who are the Kurds?
They have long fought for an independent state, but their host countries have resisted, particularly Turkey which has even gone so far as banning the Kurdish language in an attempt to suppress their ethnic identity.
This struggle has at time manifested into open war and in 1978, some Kurds formed a militant wing called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to fight these battles.
The PKK has been designated a terrorist organisation by a number of countries including the US and Turkey, although the United Nations has not listed it as such.
Is the PKK in Syria?
After Syria descended into civil war after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, Isis gained a strong foothold in the country, and western nations and Kurdish forces were successful in largely driving them out of the country.
The Kurds now control a large area of northern Syria along the border with Turkey, and it is this that has made Ankara nervous.
What is Turkey threatening to do?
Turkey views the Kurdish area in Syria as a safe haven for terrorists. On Tuesday, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Twitter it was ready to launch an attack, saying: ”[Turkish armed forces] will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders.
“All preparations for the operation have been completed.”
Why is Trump letting them do this to US-allies?
Trump’s decision came after a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and though the details of the discussion have not been released, Trump it as part of his 2016 campaign promise to extract the United States from “these endless wars”.
A US official told Reuters: “We were not asked to remove our troops. The president when he learned about the potential Turkish invasion, knowing that we have 50 special operations troops in the region, made the decision to protect those troops.
The official underscored that Trump’s decision did not constitute a US withdrawal from Syria but US forces have begun withdrawing from the area along the Turkish border.
And we’ve been here before – last December, acting without any kind of formal policymaking process, Trump called for a complete US withdrawal from Syria, but he ultimately reversed himself after drawing strong pushback from the Pentagon.
What have the Kurds said?
Kurds are understandably upset and in a strongly worded statement, they accused Washington of failing to abide by its commitments to its key allies.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, as the Kurdish-led force in Syria is known. said in a statement: “The American forces did not abide by their commitments and withdrew their forces along the border with Turkey.
“We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people.”
What are the potential ramifications?
Geopolitically the move could be a disaster – Russia and Iran, the other two major foreign powers in Syria, strongly support President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia has said that Turkey has the right to defend itself, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Syria’s territorial integrity must be preserved and that all foreign military forces “with illegal presence” should leave Syria.
If the US pulls out all its troops from northeast Syria, the Damascus government - backed by Russia - may try to retake control of much of the region not seized by Turkey.
Another consideration is the large numbers of Isis prisoners currently in Kurdish custody.
Syrian Kurdish leaders have long warned that the SDF may not be able to continue holding IS prisoners if the situation was destabilised by a Turkish invasion.
The SDF is still holding 5,000 ISIS fighters of Syrian and Iraqi nationality and a further 1,000 foreigners from more than 55 other states, according to the foreign relations department of the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria.
What’s the reaction in the US?
Trump insisted to reporters on Monday that he “consulted with everybody” but the announcement seemed to catch Congress as well as some within his administration by surprise.
“A catastrophic mistake,” said Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No 3 House Republican leader. “Shot in the arm to the bad guys,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Trump said he understood criticism from fellow Republican leaders but disagreed with them.
“He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation,” tweeted Brett McGurk, who served as Trump’s envoy for the international coalition to combat Islamic State but quit in December.
Former US military chief General David Petraeus told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme the decision raised concerns about the “level of commitment” to “the partners, who really did the fighting, and in many cases the dying on the ground, to eliminate the Isis caliphate and to defeat the Islamic State as an army.
“Keep in mind, there are still tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters in groups in north-eastern Syria, and then also in parts of north and western Iraq, and still causing problems and very likely trying to establish an insurgent movement as well as to still carry out terrorist attacks.
“So again, number one, while the caliphate is defeated, we have to be very careful not to assume that that means that the Isis problem is ended. It is not.”
What’s the latest from Trump?
On Monday evening Trump appeared to backtrack slightly and threatened to destroy the Turks’ economy if they went too far, although he did not specify what moves would meet this criteria.
“If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!),” he said on Twitter.
What happens next?
The ball is currently in Turkey’s court – the country does not appear “as of now” to have begun its expected incursion into northern Syria, a senior Trump administration official said on Monday.
But that could all change very quickly.