On Wednesday 19 December, in a move that baffled and shocked the US national security apparatus and allies alike, President Donald Trump announced the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Syria. This incident would lead to the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other senior staff members at the Department of Defense. Presently, it seems as if the withdrawal is being slowed, but there is a clear fundamental disagreement between the President and many in the national security apparatus on the President’s approach to security issues in the Middle East and US strategy in Syria. In subsequent tweets Trump declared that ‘Iran can do what it wants in Syria.’ This statement, amongst several others, demonstrates the serious misunderstanding of President Trump when it comes to US strategic interests in the Middle East – If the US withdrawal actually goes ahead under the President and his administration we will likely see further irreparable damage to, and increased violence in, Syria as well as a significant boost to both Iranian and Russian regional foreign and security policies in the Middle East.
President Trump is showing a complete disregard for the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) through his actions. By withdrawing the small deployment of US troops from Northern Syria with little to no explanation nor plan President Trump leaves a vacuum that will likely be filled by adversaries – both state and non-state actors. This is following a phone conversation with President Erdogan of Turkey, an infamously unreliable ally that has eroded democratic institutions at home and is known to have ambitious foreign policy aspirations abroad. The President and several of his administration officials claim that the withdrawal will be coordinated with Turkey which will allegedly continue the fight against ISIS in Syria. The SDF was founded by the People’s Protection’s Units (YPG) and is associated with the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) both groups Turkey considers terrorist organisations which it has targeted mercilessly in Syria and Turkey itself for years. This will increase instability in northern Syria and increase conflict between the different actors as the SDF may turn to the Assad regime for protection from Turkey. The SDF has built a secular and democratic state in northern Syria. That may now come to an end as the SDF is forced to work with to Assad as a result of Trump’s actions.
Contrary to President’s Trump’s claims, the Islamic State is not defeated. Although battered and weakened, it is precisely at this moment that the fight must continue. By withdrawing from Syria, Trump exposes the SDF, the main fighting force against Islamic State, who are crucially supported by the US troops on the ground and US led coalition airstrikes. Without the US shield the Kurdish led forces will need to divert forces westward to face the Turkish led forces in Manbij. Such a development may lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and neighbouring Iraq. This would run counter to US strategic interests in the region and is reminiscent of the Obama era withdrawal from Iraq with little to no strategy, which in turn directly contributed to the rise of Islamic State and the current war to eradicate it.
It is a known fact that Islamic State is not the only Salafi Jihadist organisation fighting in Syria. Al Qaida and its affiliates are active throughout the largely lawless country. Syria is not a classic battlefield with armies doing battle for land and establishing themselves through a system of military administration following gains on the ground. The country is characterised by regime forces and allies as well as opposition forces controlling most of the urban centres and important arteries between them. The rest, mostly rural areas, are no man’s land, with armed gangs of various stripes and colours running amok, enforcing their will or running from larger forces when necessary. This type of vacuum will persist in Syria for decades to come after the Syrian Civil War officially ends; it is exactly the type of vacuum which attracts organisations like Islamic State and Al-Qaida in the first place. By removing US special forces – the best in the world at combating these types of insurgencies – Trump’s actions will likely lead to a persistence of the cycle of violence, between Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Turkish led or supported forces. These various states and their proxies have been kept in check by the minimal US troop deployment in Syria.
Of the approximately 2,000 US troops in Syria several hundred are crucially deployed in the south of the country at the al-Tanf base where they sit astride a critical land route coveted by many actors in the conflict. From here the troops combat the Islamic State while preventing Iran and her proxies, who are amongst the strongest backers of the Assad regime, from fulfilling one of their major goals of connecting Beirut, the main base of Iranian proxy Hezbollah, and Tehran. Were these troops not strategically positioned, there would be a direct route for arms and men to directly travel from Iran to Lebanon. Hezbollah is Iran’s main tool in its war against Israel, this is while Iran continues to plant Shiite militias throughout Syria attempting to recreate Hezbollah in the country for its own interests. Tehran has made its intentions clear time and again on what its objectives are vis-à-vis the Jewish state. By withdrawing from al-Tanf and Syria at large, Trump will expose Israel in a dangerous way, allowing Iran and her proxies to extend the front, strengthen their forces and open a crucial supply route. This will place Israel in a difficult position, one that could cause it to pre-emptively strike an imminent and serious threat to its north.
Importantly, this administration is sending a signal to allies in the region and around the world: The United States of America is an unreliable partner and does not have your back. Whether it is in Europe and NATO, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern allies confronted with Iran or East Asia and the rise of China; as long as President Trump is in power American allies cannot rely on Washington for support in critical national security issues.
It is clear that Trump does not understand that the US is in competition with both Russia and Iran. The Trump Doctrine as presented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is laughable for its incomprehensiveness and contradictions. Sanctions alone will not defeat Iran nor contain Russia; malign actors within the – what some now argue is the formerly – US led world order will continue with their activities unless combated on all fronts. A comprehensive strategy to combat or at the very least contain these two major players would need to include troops staying in Syria. By withdrawing from Syria Trump is ceding the leverage the US had to its competitors in any final political solution in Syria. It also allows both Iran and Russia to expand their presence in the Mediterranean, Syria and Lebanon. By claiming victory and pulling US troops out of Syria President Trump is in fact sowing the seeds for ongoing conflict and instability. Coupled with the past US missteps in Iraq, the imperfect Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, ongoing conflicts in the region and a lack of coherent all-encompassing US led regional security strategy, President Trump is clearly setting the stage for larger and more destructive conflicts between other actors in the Middle East.