President Donald Trump’s completely unexpected decision to pull 2,000 U.S. troops out of the conflict in Syria – announced this week via Twitter without much visible consultation – has predictably caused a bit of a shitstorm in the natsec community in Washington DC. There seems to be wide-ranging speculations about Trump’s motivations to make this announcement, but the views on the negative consequences of the move are fairly close to consensus. And it certainly gave Vladimir Putin great joy to react to the news during his annual year-end press conference marathon.
There’s a lot of punditry flying around there right now, so I won’t add to the noise and will instead point toward five takes to read:
1. ‘Tis the season of giving?
According to Victoria Nuland, an authority on European and Eurasian affairs, President Trump’s announcement is a “New Year’s gift to Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin, and Tehran,” and will likely yield the same power vacuum effect seen after former President Barack Obama pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011. In terms of US diplomatic leverage, Nuland explains that the US will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater at a time when US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey was supposed to be “midwifing” a “new political path for Syria.”
2. Mending fences with Ankara?
Dana Stroul and Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy expand on these implications, writing:
“An accelerated U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be a mistake: IS has not been sustainably defeated, Iran and its proxies remain active in Syria, and a political process to end the war has not yet taken root. If the administration truly aims to fulfill its stated objectives there, it should immediately implement an alternative course of action. Otherwise, it risks not only jeopardizing the near-term U.S. interest of stabilizing a key part of the Middle East, but also damaging America’s reputation for the long term [..] Talk to Turkey about the future of the Syrian Kurds. Ambassador Jeffrey has already stated that U.S. policy does not envision partnering with non-state actors in the long term—a clear signal to Ankara that Washington’s close partnership with the YPG is temporary. Now is the time for U.S. officials to start a structured and substantive dialogue with Turkey about an acceptable end state for Syria’s Kurdish community within the Syrian state.”
3. ISIS has a chance to regroup?
Unfortunately, the President’s proposal to withdraw the 2,000 American troops from Syria within 30 days seems to have been conceived without consideration for these consequences, or as the New York Times Editorial Board puts it:
“No one wants American troops deployed in a war zone longer than necessary. But there is no indication that Mr. Trump has thought through the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal, including allowing ISIS forces to regroup and create another crisis that would draw the United States back into the region.”
4. The Kurds will flock to Russia, Iran
“The vacuum the U.S. withdrawal creates will invite other actors to step in. Turkey, which has long opposed the emergence of an American-protected Kurdish-dominated zone on its southern border, will also look to capitalize on the situation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already threatened to attack key Kurdish-held towns. Fearing a Turkish assault, Kurdish forces likely will look to Russia and Iran for protection. Alternately, Turkey itself could agree to Russian supremacy in the region, provided it keeps the Kurds in check. Either way, the Kurdish forces and regions likely will fold into the Russian-Iranian camp.”
5. Not a great look for Washington’s reputation as an ally
NATO allies are definitely not impressed, as reported by Deutsche Welle:
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Washington’s “abrupt change of course” had put the fight against IS at risk.
“IS has been pushed back but the threat is not yet over,” Germany’s Foreign Office tweeted. There is a danger that the consequences of this decision will damage the fight against IS and jeopardize the successes already achieved.” (…)
Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Florence Parly acknowledged that the group had been significantly weakened, she said the battle was not over.
“Islamic State has not been wiped from the map, nor have its roots elsewhere. The last pockets of this terrorist organization must be defeated militarily once and for all,” Parly said on Twitter. (…)
Britain, which takes part in air strikes as part of the coalition effort, said it was important not to underestimate the threat that IS still poses.
In a statement late Thursday, the British Foreign Office said important advances had been made in recent days, but added that “much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose.”
“Even without territory, Daesh will remain a threat,” the statement said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
While the Foreign Office statement diplomatically avoided a contradiction of Trump’s assessment, junior Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood was more blunt, saying he “strongly” disagreed.
All in all, not a great day for American diplomacy – but at least we aren’t talking about Treasury easing Oleg Deripaska’s sanctions…