Last Monday, the United States’ special representative for Syria engagement had publicly pledged that the US commitment to Syria would not waiver. The very next day, US President Donald Trump reportedly decided to rapidly withdraw all US troops from there. Trump appears to be discarding his entire Syria and Iran strategy at a single stroke, giving up any and all US influence in the region — and disregarding the advice of his top national security officials.
Trump’s decision will have devastating and dangerous consequences for the US, the region and the Syrian people.
Trump seemed to confirm over Twitter reports that he has instructed the Pentagon to plan for the rapid withdrawal of some 2,000 US forces from Syria’s northeast, which was recently liberated from Daesh rule.
Trump is contradicting what all of his other top national security officials have been telling the world for months.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis (who announced his resignation on Thursday) had said in August that US troops would stay until progress was made on the political track. National Security Adviser John Bolton had said in September: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said in an October speech that the goal of defeating Daesh was “now joined by two other mutually reinforcing objectives”: A peaceful resolution to the conflict and “the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria”.
Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford Jr had said earlier this month that the US military still had “a long way to go” in its mission to train local forces in Syria to keep the Islamic State at bay. Representative Adam Kinzinger, leading Republican, noted that the timing of the move could not have been more counterproductive. There’s no sound reason for the US to announce that it was giving up all leverage just as the next round of negotiations begins.
“History will look at that as one of the stupidest strategic moves before a negotiation,” he said. “In order to have a successful diplomatic outcome, you have to have a military option and a military presence.”
What’s worse, Trump is repeating the same mistake that former president Barack Obama had made in Iraq — withdrawing and leaving a vacuum that Daesh and other extremists are sure to fill.
There’s also no clarity on whether this also means that the US will abandon its military base at Tanf, where a few hundred US troops are working with local Sunni Arab partner forces to hold a strategic location near the Syria-Iraq border. Bolton personally lobbied with Trump not to withdraw from Tanf this year.
Trump is abandoning all of the partner forces the US has been fighting with over the years. America has also spent billions of dollars building and supporting them. The mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which are in control of Raqqa, will have no choice but to cut a deal with the regime, returning Syria’s resource-rich northeast to President Bashar Al Assad’s control. Local Arab forces working with the US will also be forced to switch sides to survive.
“It’s a sad state of affairs when our key allies on the ground, who’ve shed blood and thousands of lives for our fight against Daesh, are to be well and truly abandoned,” said Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Lister said Trump might have struck some deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding US support for Kurdish forces during their phone call last Friday.
The Trump administration theory (up until now) was that the Al Assad regime, Russia and Iran will need the US and the international community to help pay for the reconstruction of Syria, to help refugees return, thereby giving the West some leverage.
More likely, Al Assad and his partners have no desire for the return of millions of angry Syrians and no desire to economically restore the areas of the country that fought against him. His rule over the now-liberated parts of Syria will be cruel and deadly, causing more refugees, more extremism and more threats to our regional allies.
US policy in Syria has been flawed from the start, a mix of half-hearted engagement, wishful-thinking diplomacy and broken promises. But the US withdrawal Trump is proposing will saddle him with the sad distinction of taking a bad policy and turning it into a strategic blunder that will come back to haunt us.
— Washington Post
Josh Rogin is a prominent columnist, political analyst and foreign policy expert.