Last week, President Donald Trump announced in a speech delivered in Ohio that soon he will order U.S. troops to pull out of Syria.
The president seemed to justify that step on grounds that ISIS has already been defeated. However, the Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the U.S. special envoy for the global coalition against ISIS, Brett Mc Gurk, have pointed out that ISIS has not been defeated yet. Furthermore, U.S. military commanders claim that the fight against the terrorist group has in fact been halted as a result of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, which has targeted the Kurds. The Kurds constitute the main force fighting the Islamic State. As a result of the need to resist Turkish aggression, Kurdish fighters have been diverted from focusing on ISIS.
However, the problem of withdrawing our troops from Syria is not just limited to the fight against ISIS. Retreating from Syria will have serious geo-political consequences. First, we would leave the Kurdish populations in northern Syria at the mercy of Turkey. Most probably, Turkey will crush them and proceed to take over the territories under their control. In that scenario, U.S. troops will never be able to return to the area. In addition, such a move would present us with additional serious moral and political challenges. First, why would we betray the Kurds, who have been faithful allies? Second, why would we give a victory to a man like the unreliable and volatile Turkish leader Recep Tayip Erdogan?
The Turkish government under the leadership of Erdogan is more likely to serve the interests of Russia and Iran than those of its allies in NATO. Erdogan himself is working closely with Russia and Iran and has demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Northern Syria precisely in order to crush the Kurds without impediments. Therefore, the abandonment of the Kurdish minority would mean that we would willingly be giving up a potential ally in counteracting the expanding Russian-Iranian-Syrian and Turkish alliance. Furthermore, if we let the Syrian Kurds down, this may have negative repercussions upon our relations with the Kurds in Iraq, another important group that is pro-western and is a symbol of relative stability and success in the region.
Furthermore, Trump has strongly criticized the Iran nuclear deal signed by his predecessor Barack Obama. One of the many problems that the Iran deal presented was precisely that it failed to include Iran’s terrorist and destabilizing activities in the region. A U.S. withdrawal from Syria would likely open the door to Iran’s further expansion. This could embolden it to continue its subversive activities in Iraq, Yemen and other places in the region.
Just last January the U.S. announced a policy on Syria that included expansion of the fight against ISIS, prevention of expansion of Iranian influence, and a stabilization plan that would provide humanitarian, economic and political assistance to areas under rebel control (including enabling elections). Likewise, one of the policy’s goals was to ultimately remove Bashar Al Assad from power by supporting opposition forces.
This policy is consistent with U.S. strategic interests in the region. It curbs Iranian and Russian power, and at the same time, promotes a freer and a more democratic way of life for the Syrian people.
Currently, the Damascus suburban area of Ghouta is undergoing a serious crisis. Eastern Ghouta fell into the hands of the regime, leaving the rebels in a state of disarray as they were forced to abandon an important stronghold. Russian bombardments in Eastern Ghouta have killed 1,600 people and forced 120,000 people to flee their homes. The Russians bombed Ghouta with napalm burning dozens of civilians to death and forcing the Syrian Free Army out of Ghouta.
Now the rebels control very few areas. It is only a matter of time before the Assad regime takes full control of the country. Once this happens, Russia will secure a stronger presence in the Middle East. Since 2015 Russia increased its involvement in Syria when it started launching airstrikes against Assad’s opponents. In 2016 Russia took part in the merciless attacks on Aleppo and now on Ghouta. Besides Iran and Russia, we now have the power of Turkey expanding into Syria. In fact, on April 4th, a summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey will take place to decide the future of Syria. In other words, the butchers of the Syrian people will also decide their fate.
In other words, we are not in a good position in Syria in the first place, partly because of the thoughtless policies of the Obama Administration. But we don’t have to make it worse.
If we withdraw from Syria we would be displaying a lack of assertiveness, insensitivity in the face of human suffering, and we would be portrayed as being unreliable partners. In short, we would make America weak again.
As Mike Pompeo will be assuming the role of Secretary of State in the near future and John Bolton the role of National Security Advisor, it would be prudent for Trump to design a strategy with these two gentlemen. Making a decision before they come on board can only undermine their work and the future relations between the president and the national security/foreign policy team. Policy cannot be determined by emotional or impulsive moments. It needs to be properly strategized. Pompeio and Bolton are capable of doing a great job but they need the autonomy and respect they deserve as policy planners and men of experience.
Let us not make a fatal reckless decision.
Published by Center for Security Policy on Wednesday April 4th, 2018