Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group, a Montreal-based think tank, and a former Canadian career diplomat and academic who specializes in Islamic law and politics.
Ever since his unlikely presidential campaign, Donald Trump has been musing about pulling the United States’s troops – who had been supporting the Kurdish YPG rebels in their fight against both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – out of Syria. His circle, however, had been able to quell his rhetoric when it came time to make policy: advisers like former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Defence Secretary James Mattis. Just this September, Mr. Trump announced that he would extend the military effort there indefinitely while working toward a diplomatic and political solution.
But now, with many of those voices quieted – through firing, resignation or marginalization – Mr. Trump delivered another fiat by tweet that represents a 180-degree policy turn for his administration: The United States' 2,000 troops in Syria have been ordered to return home.
That is his right, after all. As commander-in-chief of all U.S. military forces, any decision to withdraw from Syria is his. Mr. Trump’s decision, not his advisers', is the only one that really counts.
Unfortunately, his tweet – “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency” – reveals a man clearly unfamiliar with the region and military strategy generally. The Islamic State, after all, is hardly dead. An operation on Dec. 14, in which U.S. and Kurdish forces eliminated an Islamic State pocket in northeastern Deir-al-Zor province, only highlights how Pyrrhic the victories have been; surviving Islamic State fighters blend in with the local population, only to turn up again elsewhere. The military suppression of one Islamic State pocket displaces the conflict by creating other new centres under Islamic State control, through their insurgency tactics.
The pullout makes the Kurds cannon fodder once again, with no medium- or long-term benefit to their fight. Kurdistan has long needed a regional, not international, champion; they do not have one. And if the Islamic State regains force, can the West in good conscience ask the YPG to fight the Islamic State again, knowing that the United States has betrayed them before?
But the U.S. departure is a win for the Astana group, an uneasy coalition led by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Turks are certainly pleased by the news, as it will reduce the YPG’s capabilities and access to weapons as they work to carve out a foothold in Syria. The Turks are determined to clear out the Kurds from border areas, which will be easier if the United States stops arming the YPG. Iran, too, would see its regional influence grow; the leaders of both countries have already met and committed to deepening co-operation without referring to the U.S. withdrawal. “Our will is steadfast in continuing and increasing our cooperation with Iran on this issue and to neutralize common targets together,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For its part, Russia has praised the withdrawal as an opportunity for a “political solution.” Indeed, there has been some progress in implementing fall’s Sochi agreement, which demarcated a new demilitarized zone in the rebel bastion of Idlib – and recent trilateral discussions have alluded to the development of a new constitution and elections for Syria, as well as elections. There is also talk of dovetailing the United Nations’ efforts with the Astana process, thereby giving it some needed international traction. But the United States' pullout would also crown Russia as a major regional player and, if a political settlement in Syria is indeed reached, it could solidify Russian prestige and power at the UN as a peacemaker, allowing Moscow to mask the dreadful record of barrel bombs and civilian carnage wreaked by its war planes on the Syrian people throughout the seven-year civil war.
Besides, it is deeply premature to speak of any enduring normalization of the Syrian situation on the ground. Knowing the United States will pull out might only embolden the Assad government and trigger another assault on Idlib. It might also give new hope to remaining Islamic State fighters holed up in areas still under their control in Syria.
If past is prologue, Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy in Syria – a move that Mr. Trump himself has played up for his own political gain – allowed the United States’ “red line” to be demeaned and diminished. That Mr. Trump’s critics – including within his own party, as well as in the Defence and State departments – are calling this an error and an “Obama-like” move is telling.
Now that the naysayers in the Trump administration have been silenced, Mr. Trump’s desire to leave Syria can be fulfilled. But his move would only re-create the same problem U.S. troops were called in to Syria to solve in the first place – but now, if the Islamic State re-emerges, there will be no one else for Mr. Trump to blame, and no one left on the ground to help the United States fight it.