By withdrawing US troops from Syria, President Donald Trump is playing a kind of Russian roulette, entrusting dangerous players with key US national security objectives.
Trump is not known to admit mistakes and often doubles down under pressure, so it’s unlikely he’ll try to change course on Syria. But by acquiescing to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wishes, Trump has betrayed our Kurdish allies and tarnished our credibility as reliable partners. His move also means that a lot of our previously held core priorities, such as fighting ISIS and defending Israel, are now in the hands of some very suspect leaders.
Don’t be a chicken with Turkey
Just last year, Trump affirmed his commitment to prioritizing counterterrorism and wrote in his 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism: “I made a solemn promise to the American people to spare no effort to preserve the safety and security of the United States.”
Counterterrorism is a key focus for any president, and Trump has consistently (and inaccurately) championed his own administration’s success fighting ISIS. With the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces and our other partners in Syrian counterterrorism, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has made major gains in destroying the terrorist group’s territorial footholds in Syria.
After Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from Syria last December (an announcement he did not implement) — also following a call with Erdogan — the US did maintain a contingent of troops, mostly special forces, as part of our counterterrorism mission in Syria.
Now we’ve significantly reduced our resources to counter ISIS in Syria and outsourced our counterterrorism campaign to Erdogan, and to Russia and Iran — two of our biggest enemies.
Hundreds of forces that were partnering with the United States to fight ISIS are now relocating and refocusing to fight Turkey and defend themselves. The Washington Post reports that the pace of Kurdish operations against ISIS has “significantly tapered off,” as the Kurds have had to deprioritize their battle against the Islamic State because they’ve lost our support — and because they have to focus on protecting themselves from Erdogan.
Erdogan will have control over territory in Syria now — and could take on a larger share of the counterterrorism mission there. But he views Syrian Kurds as terrorists who are allied with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. His near-term priority is pushing back — and getting rid of — the Syrian Kurdish forces.
What’s more, the United States’ withdrawal from Syria will hurt our ability to gather intelligence there, as we lose eyes and ears on the ground and direct access to human intelligence networks. Our mission against ISIS in Syria was not over, and our withdrawal has only increased the risks posed by the thousands of ISIS members still on the loose in Syria.
Now, because of our hasty withdrawal, ISIS fighters have been released — in part because Kurdish fighters who were guarding ISIS prisons and camps have had to relocate. The Kurds will be forced to divert even more resources from countering ISIS going forward.
America is not winning any reliability contests with this move. Our abrupt withdrawal from northeast Syria and our abandonment of our counterterrorism mission there was reportedly announced without the coordination with the Kurds or any other key coalition partners; French President Emmanuel Macron said he found out about this decision from a tweet.
Trump’s reckless decision will impede our future ability to persuade partners to work with us on counterterrorism missions around the world.
All roads lead to Russia
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “all roads seem to lead to Putin” when it comes to Trump’s actions. She’s right, especially when it comes to Trump supporting Russia’s goal of gaining power and influence in the Middle East.
Ever since Bashar al-Assad officially requested Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, Vladimir Putin has been playing boss in the ongoing conflict. With significant assets on the ground in Syria, Putin’s been propping up Assad in the Syrian dictator’s fight against rebels and ISIS. And he’s been trying to play the neutral power-broker by offering to “mediate” an end to the war in Syria, despite his obvious bias toward Assad.
Putin has hosted summits with key players in Syria before — including one last February in Sochi between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Putin is scheduled to meet again with Erdogan this week and will probably try to trump the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate a “pause” in Turkey’s military operations.
With Russian and Syrian forces now occupying former US bases in northeastern Syria and former US allied forces turning to both Assad and Russia for protection, we may have to rely on one of our biggest enemies — Russia — to work with Turkey to ensure the bloodshed stops.
That’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket: Putin’s.
Russia, in turn, is taking advantage of Trump’s decision and painting the United States as an unreliable partner while promoting itself as a good friend in the Middle East: Putin, the trustworthy ally who won’t cut and run — unlike Trump. Putin held meetings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia last week, and as he gains power in Syria, it’s likely he’ll continue to draw a contrast between Russia’s commitment to staying the course there (even if that means propping up Assad, a war criminal) and Trump’s abandonment of our partners and mission there.
Trump says he doesn’t care if Russia (or China, or Napoleon Bonaparte) ends up protecting the Kurds, but he probably doesn’t understand what Russia stepping in to fill our shoes means longer-term, as more countries turn to Putin, instead of to the United States, for support.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Israel last week to try to assuage Israeli officials’ concerns about what a US withdrawal would mean for Iran’s ability to operate in Syria. US support for Israel has been a central piece of US foreign policy for decades, and President Trump likes to paint himself as the best friend Israel has ever had. Concurrently, he’s also made countering Iran one of the pillars of his foreign policy approach.
Yet even though Trump is leaving a contingent of US troops at the al-Tanf base in south-central Syria to deter Iran, the downgrade in US troop presence in Syria, and Trump’s tweets about how Syria isn’t a US problem, are likely causing Israeli officials to question how serious Trump is about protecting Israel from Iranian attacks from within Syria.
Iran deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces to Syria with the goal of creating a land corridor it can use to transport supplies to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group. From within Syria, Iranian forces and proxies will now have an easier time striking Israel. In fact, Israel has launched strikes against Iranian targets in Syria for that exact reason.
With fewer US forces in Syria now, and with Trump very publicly extricating himself and the United States from Syria, the Israelis are going to have to depend on others — such as Putin — to try to keep Iran at bay. The United States, similarly, will be more reliant on other leaders who have real skin in the Syrian game — such as Putin and Erdogan, who are far from Iran hawks — to try to tamp down Iranian attacks against Israel.
Trump’s policy, then, is to gamble on some shady characters to keep Iran in check. That’s a dangerous game to play based on Iran’s history of attacking Israel from anywhere it can.
Foreign policy on the fly is Trump’s calling card. Other leaders are probably banking on the fact that speaking with him alone — without experts around — is a sure way to get what they want out of him. Now that Erdogan’s gotten Trump to go against his own experts’ advice during one-on-one phone calls at least twice, the President is scrambling to come up with some semblance of a strategy. He’s outsourcing our security to Erdogan, Putin and maybe even Assad to take care of what should be key US missions.