President Donald Trump will reportedly slow down the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, but his initial hasty decision has already sped up jockeying by major players in the region. And none of the unfolding scenarios are favorable to the U.S. or its key allies.
The Syrian Kurds, for instance, fought ISIS alongside U.S. troops. Now they’re threatened by another ostensible U.S. ally, Turkey, which has stated its intention to attack them when U.S. troops leave Syria.
Sure, the Turks are a NATO nation and are officially allied with the U.S. But Ankara is increasingly bucking Washington, including its plan to target the military arm of the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees them as enemies because of their association with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
The planned abandonment by the U.S. has led Syrian Kurdish leaders to ask the Assad regime for protection from Turkish forces. If granted, it would be just one more political, if not territorial, gain for Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose brutal rule is worthy of war crimes charges. (Trump himself has called Assad an “animal” for his use of chemical weapons, just one of the atrocities Trump’s own State Department has chronicled in its annual Human Rights Report.)
A U.S. withdrawal, even if more deliberate, would delight Moscow and Tehran as much as Damascus, since Russia and Iran have immorally enabled Assad to continue his homicidal reign.
And although ISIS no longer controls a designated capital of its caliphate, the terrorist group, however depleted, is not defeated, a fact that Trump himself has acknowledged after initially identifying ISIS’s defeat as the rationale for his quick withdrawal. Turkey has pledged to step up its efforts to fight ISIS, but it seems clear that Erdogan is more concerned (if not obsessed) with persecuting Kurds, be it in his country or neighboring Syria.
Allied capitals can’t be pleased, either. Jerusalem rightly fears Iran’s added ability to support Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And despite the deeply troubling government in Riyadh, which the Republican-led U.S. Senate just officially blamed for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia is still an ally, and is in a long-term struggle with Iran.
It’s not just Mideast capitals that have to be worried about Trump’s impulsive abandonment of a key U.S. ally. European and Asian allies have to be concerned, too. This may actually make it more, not less, likely that the United States gets militarily involved around the world, since it will be more difficult for other countries to trust the durability of U.S. commitments.
“There is both a national-security interest and a values-based interest in when the United States defines a mission, sets an objective, and then recruits partners and allies to work with it to achieve that mission and objective,” Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an editorial writer. “The major challenge with the manner of the president’s decision is that it was not previewed with any allies, there was no time to prep partners and it makes the United States look unreliable.”
The necessity of reliability was clear to Jim Mattis. “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” the former defense secretary wrote in his resignation letter.
Unreliability anywhere, but especially in the Mideast, encourages reliably malign forces of adversaries to fill the void. Trump was right to announce a slower withdrawal, but he should listen to allies — both globally and in Washington — and further reconsider the ramifications of his Syrian policy.