In early April 2018, President Donald Trump made the sensational announcement that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria “very soon”.
However, he was quickly persuaded by his advisers, in particular Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and by French President Emmanuel Macron not to do so, at least in the near future, as ISIS was not yet beaten. The US also had its interests to consider vis-à-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia, the very first countries that Trump visited as President, which are both keen to get Iran – Russia’s and al-Assad’s ally – out of Syria.
At the end of December 2018, however, President Trump came back to this surprise decision to leave Syria and the Kurds to their fate, meeting rapid approval not only from Moscow, Damascus and Teheran, but also from Ankara. Domestically, the immediate effect was the resignation of James Mattis. It seemed that nothing stood between Trump and his decision – there were simply no longer strong and competent people with the capability and will to oppose him in the White House and the Administration.
The only person who could – and actually did – influence Trump’s decision (but probably not his judgement) is the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His role is obvious from the US announcements on postponing the withdrawal indefinitely, after he had met the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 1, in Brazil, and the National Security Adviser James Bolton in Jerusalem on January 6, 2019. The US now claims officially that the pull out of its troops from Syria will be conditional upon a Turkish assurance to safeguard the Kurds in those territories where they are currently under the protection of the Americans and their Allies. The US also requires measures to protect its own forces during the pull out.
The withdrawal of around 2600 US troops from a dozen bases (including two air bases) in northern and eastern Syria could be completed in a matter of weeks if Trump disregards the opinions of his advisers and allies and insists it should go ahead. The US first has to secure an agreement with Turkey to guarantee the safety of Kurds, whom Ankara clearly regards as terrorists. The Kurds, who have borne the brunt of fighting ISIS on the ground, already feel betrayed and fear Turkish occupation and reprisals more than anything else. President Trump presumably thinks that handing the Kurds over to Turkey’s mercy will somehow alleviate relations between the US and its NATO ally and help business deals to go ahead. In December, the US Department of State cleared a possible 3.5 billion USD sale of Patriot air defence missile systems, even as Turkey is set to conclude a controversial S-400 deal of similar magnitude with Russia, and is holding talks with European manufacturers to develop and build its own systems.
However, after NSA Bolton declared on 8 January that Turkey had agreed to protect the Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately stated the opposite in front of his own country’s parliament. He demanded that the US should abandon its bases in Kurdish lands in Turkey’s favour and should not hand American weapons over to the Kurds for Turkish forces to have to fight against. He also rejected any “compromise” with the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), both supported by the US.
It seems that President Trump’s hasty decision is now in limbo, shelved by considerations of a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the Kurdish held areas of Syria and the possible re-emergence of Islamic fundamentalism. President Trump still seems to believe that nothing of the kind could happen as Turkey would take over the role of the US in Syria and ISIS is almost obliterated. But it is evident that Turkey does not wish to replicate the US role, and has its own agenda.
Furthermore, ISIS is not yet destroyed. It still has tens of thousands of fighters on the ground and, judging from the deadly fights in which it has engaged in recent days, seems to be emboldened by Trump’s decision. The combination of the pull out of US troops from Iraq ordered by former US president Barack Obama and the chaos created by the civil war in Syria opened the window for the emergence of ISIS from anonymity in 2013. If the US leaves Syria now, it will be very difficult for it and its allies to re-enter the same theatre, especially once it is occupied by other powers, in order to fight against a potential new Islamic fundamentalist threat.
Turkey’s interests are clear, but what do al-Assad’s regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, have to gain from the American pull out? Even if Presidents Trump and Erdoğan somehow reach an agreement on Kurdish safety, the Kurds would prefer the lesser evil, from their point of view, of Russia and al-Assad’s regime. However, these actors also have their own reasons for retribution against the Kurds. They have not forgotten, among other things, their deadly and humiliating defeat at Deir ez-Zor in February 2018. In addition, Russia and Iran stand ready to fill any vacuum created by a US withdrawal from the larger Middle East, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The premature withdrawal of American (and other allied) forces from Syria in present circumstances, when the country is still far away from stability, harmony, peace and reconstruction, could be catastrophic. It would alter regional stability and potentially lead to a larger regional conflict, in addition to creating new waves of refugees to head for Syria’s neighbours and for Europe. It could also set a precedent for an isolationist and defeatist process of US withdrawal from other regions and for the abandonment of its partners and allies – much to the joy of rival powers.