President Trump for now has decided to allow about 2,000 US troops to remain in Syria. But the controversy over whether or not to withdraw them is symptomatic of Washington’s lack of overall strategy for the Middle East.
This indecisiveness has prompted Trump to warm up further with Saudi Arabia, the same country that helped finance and logistically support the rise of jihadist Salafists, including Al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS). Now, Trump wants the Saudi kingdom to financially underwrite US efforts to consolidate the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq against what both Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman regard as a threat from Iran spreading its influence throughout the region.
It also can be seen as a desperate move by the Trump administration to maintain some modicum of influence in the Middle East in the face of its role rapidly being replaced by the influence of Russia, Iran and now Turkey.
Russia and Iran were invited by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad to assist in fighting jihadist Salafist fighters, many being foreign fighters, along with Al-Qaida and Islamic State. However, US troops never were invited by the Syrian government and have been labeled as an occupying force. In addition, the US Congress never authorized such a move.
Now, Trump has become impatient with the progress of a resolution of the Syrian civil war and sees how expensive and complicated it has become and would rather refocus on US infrastructure reconstruction. He has reverted back to promises made during the presidential campaign in which his foreign policy, in effect, has become his domestic policy.
“Leaving U.S. forces there for a ‘short term’ is a compromise but those who guess we’ll stay long-term may want to re-think,” said Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria.
“Trump will remember the applause he heard at the Ohio rally when he said he’d pull the forces back out. In my own travels around the US speaking about Syria, I’ve yet to meet any audience anywhere that wants us to get more involved in the Syrian civil war.”
But the president has been bombarded by national security experts who caution against such a sudden removal of American troops, pointing to what occurred following US military departure from Iraq in 2011 and following the initial defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
These experts point out that the US has maintained a military presence in Germany, Japan, and South Korea more than 60 years following conflicts with those countries.
Those who want the US to remain in Syria also think the US should provide Syria with humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.
While Trump, for the moment, has reversed his decision to withdraw troops from Syria, he has not lifted his suspension of the $200 million earmarked for Syrian reconstruction.
A precipitous withdrawal “would send a frightening message” to the entire region, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the US, said at a conference recently held at the United States Institute of Peace.
The further concern is the threat to other Trump administration goals, such as blunting Iran’s influence in the region.
“If the US withdraws from Iraq and Syria, it will just make the problems worse,” said Alireza Nader, consultant associated with the RAND Corporation. “The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is going to heat up. There might be a military conflict between Iran and Israel… If the US really wants to counter Iran in the region, it has to stay in Syria.”
The president also has surrounded himself with what has been labeled as a “war cabinet,” such as the neo-con John Bolton, his brand new national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to be his next Secretary of State.
Both are regarded as “hawks,” with Bolton having been an avid supporter of then-President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 when he was the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
These two, along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have been pushing Trump to remain in Syria. They point to the creation of Islamic State after his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, pulled out US troops in Iraq in December 2011.
Jihadist Islamist fighters quickly filled the military vacuum created by their exit and were able to mount a formidable force capable of defeating the Iraqi military.
With its back against the wall after ISIS took over whole areas near Mosul to begin establishing their caliphate and liquidating large number of Iraqi military forces, Iraq was forced once again to invite back US forces. Their new mission wasn’t to actively engage in a combat role but to train and assist the nearly depleted Iraqi military to be able to defeat ISIS. US Special Forces remain in Iraq to this day.
The major argument by Trump’s national security advisers for keeping the troops in Syria in an area controlled by the Kurds is to create a number of bases, principally in eastern Syria, from which those forces can continue to attack remnants of Islamic State fighters who remain in this predominantly Sunni-portion of Syria. Some 95 percent of the ISIS fighters have been cleaned out, their caliphate no longer exists, but another five percent remain in the country.
Their argument is that if US forces suddenly withdrew, the ISIS fighters could regroup and once again become a serious threat.
In Syria, however, the US made a decision to create bases in Kurdish-controlled areas taken back by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is comprised mainly of Kurds and Arab fighters. This has put the US in a position of confrontation with Turkey. Ankara has made further military inroads into northern Syria against the Kurds who are opposite the southwestern portion of Turkey which is predominantly Kurdish.
Turkey regards the Kurds as a terrorist group, especially the US-backed SDF comprised mainly of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey says its occupation of Syria is to create a buffer against further Kurdish attacks into Turkey, and to hand over to the Assad government those areas it takes from the Kurds.
Given US backing of the Kurds in and around the northern Syrian city of Manbij, a military standoff appears to have developed between the US and Turkey. This could push the two NATO allies into a shooting war.
In continuing to occupy mostly the eastern portion of Syria and unite the Sunnis in that region, the US also seeks to control critical oil production in the region, a major source of revenue for the Syrian government.
In this sense, such a strategy suggests the US is reverting to an older mantra of regime change in Syria. Given that a principal author of that approach, John Bolton, now will become Trump’s national security adviser, that goal may once again be back on the table.
Inevitably, their strategy appears to be one of partitioning Syria altogether and isolating the Assad government to the western portion of Syria while giving the Kurds the northern portion across northern Syria and uniting it with northern Iraq. Meantime, these advisers envision being influential in the eastern portion of Syria that borders on the Sunni-controlled portion of western Iraq to help stymie the forward movement of Iran and the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq comprised mainly of Shiite fighters.
If the Saudis pony up with the money, it is quite conceivable that Trump will go along with this strategy as outlined by his hawks.
Trump is already planning to disassociate the US from backing the Iranian nuclear deal and may agree with the Saudi desire of stemming Iran’s influence stretching from Baghdad to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea by keeping US troops in the Sunni-controlled regions of Syria and Iraq. While this decision will help address Israel’s national security concerns, it also will mean no end in sight to US involvement in the Middle East.
However, it won’t mean that US influence will increase or improve conditions there as Russia, Iran and Turkey have laid out a plan to bring stability to Syria, thereby blunting whatever influence the US can assert.