Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Gives Major Wins To Russia, Turkey, Iran, And ISIS
The impulsive withdrawal from Syria signals America’s abandonment of both allies and principles.
Updated December 22, 2018: Secretary of Defense James Mattis has announced his resignation in a letter clearly rebuking President Trump’s authoritarian-friendly worldview.
The Lede: President Trump has ordered the immediate withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops in Syria today. The announcement set off a bevy of confusion on multiple fronts in both the Trump administration, Congress and on the ground. It also added more danger and uncertainty to a conflict already too full of it. In announcing the withdrawal, the President essentially declared victory against ISIS in the region and indicated this was the only reason he cared to keep troops there in the first place.
The Context: American troops in Syria had two general purposes: engaging in counterterrorism activity, chiefly against ISIS; and to provide training to US-supported militias, most notably Kurdish forces in the north of the country. Trump’s policy on Syria has been a tragic mix of incoherence and indifference from the start. He has questioned American presence in Syria since he was a candidate but failed to roll out any sort of strategy to do anything about it as president. This was evidenced by the haphazard and ineffective manner with which US forces responded to major developments in Syria, such as the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
This move signals more of the same and was seemingly as surprising to Mr. Trump’s own staff as it was to the public. About 24 hours before Trump’s announcement, State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino assured the media that US forces in Syria would remain in the country, saying “We’ve made significant progress recently in the campaign, but the job is not yet done.” A few hours after Trump’s announcement, reports came in that State Department officials would be evacuated within 24 hours. The State Department has refused to comment on the matter, as has Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
It also appears that the US had not notified many key allies about the move. President Trump did, however, notify Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the withdrawal, which has massive consequences of the fate of the conflict going forward (more on this later.)
The withdrawal has drawn the ire of both parties in Congress, and many key Republicans are not standing by Trump’s actions:
The decision to pull out of Syria was made despite overwhelming military advice against it.
It is a major blunder. It it isn’t reversed it will haunt this administration & America for years to come.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 19, 2018
Sen. Sasse: “The President’s generals have no idea where this weak decision came from … The losers are Israel, humanitarian victims, and U.S. intelligence gathering. A lot of American allies will be slaughtered if this retreat is implemented.”
— NBC News (@NBCNews) December 19, 2018
Trump had little concern even for his party’s thoughts on the matter, evident in his canceling of a meeting with Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A briefing by Vice President Mike Pence did little to assuage concerns.
The Analysis: Today’s withdrawal can be seen as an outright capitulation at best, and a cynical abandonment of US allies and principles at worst. Pulling out troops in such hasty manner-i.e. without consulting advisors and allies, without providing a strategy to do so, or even failing to notify US-supported groups in Syria- has no discernible positive outcomes for US foreign policy or national security. The move, however, is music to the ears of Mr. Erdogan and a host of parties hostile to US interests, namely Russia, Iran, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and ISIS.
Start with Erdogan. The Turkish leader had been planning an offensive against the US-backed Kurdish Protection militia group known as the YPG, which he sees as an offshoot of Kurdish separatists in is own country. A similar offensive was conducted by Turkey earlier this year. There was concern that a potential confrontation between Turkish and American forces, both NATO allies, was possible if Erdogan went through with the operation. Ostensibly, Trump and Erdogan settled the matter, with Trump allowing the brutal dictator to have his way with forces who have fought side by side with American troops for years.
Trump’s move also gives carte blanche to Assad’s forces and their Russian and Iranian backers to destroy their opposition by any means they deem necessary. American presence in Syria prevented Assad and Putin from unleashing even more brutality of the Syrian people that they already have. Without potential run-ins with American forces to worry about, government forces that previously saw nothing wrong with dropping barrel bombs and chemical gas on civilians will now also be free to use everything in their arsenal to crush rebel groups. Rebels may, in turn, use ever more drastic measures, further endangering civilians.
This will make little difference to Russia and Iran, both eager to declare victory in Syria. President Putin will be keen to end a war whose popularity at home has been waning, and whose end will allow him to focus military efforts fully on the West. Iran will also be happy to stop spending money it increasingly does not have on supporting Assad, while also enjoying a crescent of influence from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.
ISIS leaders too will rejoice at the American retreat. The ensuing chaos will potentially allow them to regroup and rebuild in the region, rendering pointless previous Western counterterrorism efforts.
As bad as the potential outcomes are in the short and medium term, the long-term implications of Trump’s order are that much worse. The US has always justified its military operations as necessary to promote peace, stability, and/or democracy. By leaving its allies to fend for themselves against brutal dictators, it now sends a different message: the US stands for nothing and is not to be trusted.
Even Trump’s own senior officials appear to agree with my analysis.
Sr. Admin. official tells me re Syria withdrawal: “Senior officials across the Administration agree that the President’s decision-by-tweet will recklessly put American and allied lives in danger around the world, take the pressure off of ISIS allowing them to reconstitute, and…
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) December 20, 2018
2/ “… hand a strategic victory to our Syrian, Iranian, and Russian adversaries. It’s a mistake of colossal proportions and the President fails to see how it will endanger our country.”
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) December 20, 2018
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