Syrian retreat cedes power to Putin
Our editorial back in April observed: “Currently there is an absence of strategy (in Syria) and if (President) Trump continues down that road it assures the U.S. will play no role in what happens next, while sending a signal to the world that the U.S. is ceding influence to Putin’s Russia.”
Now it has happened, or least will happen unless the president reverses his decision to pull all U.S. forces out of eastern Syria over the next 30 days.
Reactions to Trump’s rash move do not bode well for what might happen going forward.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a Moscow news conference, “Donald’s right and I agree with him.”
Setting aside the odd informality of the response — “Donald?”— it was not surprising to hear Putin giving the U.S. president a thumbs up. Of course Putin is happy to see the roughly 2,000 American ground troops and special forces personnel leave. It strengthens Putin’s hand in the Middle East, influence won in an alliance with Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that crushed the Syrian rebellion with a brutal air campaign that destroyed entire cities and many of the civilians living in them.
About 500,000 people have died during the Syrian civil war and the fight to remove the Islamic State that sought to build a caliphate there. An estimated 11 million people have become refugees.
Putin’s quick pat on the back should make President Trump queasy and give him pause to reconsider.
So too should reaction stories centered on the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led army that, with the support of U.S. air attacks, led the drive to uproot Islamic State forces from their strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurds are being hung out to dry with this decision. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has talked for months about an offensive targeting the Kurdish forces, which he considers an enemy of his state because of their long fight for independence within Turkey’s borders. The alliance of Kurdish and U.S. troops has deterred a Turkish offensive.
Trump discussed the situation with Erdogan by phone a week ago. Clearly, the results of that conversation did not favor the Kurdish situation. Confronting a future without U.S. protection, the Syrian Democratic Forces were reported to be discussing what to do with the 1,100 Islamic State prisoners they are holding at various sites. Without U.S. financial support for the detention sites and not wanting to tie up their militarily resources guarding the prisons, the Kurds were considering setting them free, according to news reports.
Then there was Israel’s reaction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that in the absence of an American military presence, Israel would become more aggressive in its fight against Iran-aligned Hezbollah forces in Syria. That increases the prospects of a wider Mideast war.
Military and intelligence officials dispute the underpinning of Trump’s decision — that the Islamic State has been defeated. Yes, the joint U.S., Kurdish and Iraqi counterattacks drove ISIS from the territory it once held, but given the void that the U.S. retreat would create, Islamic State forces would likely reassemble and the terrorist threat to the West increase.
This appears to be one of Trump’s gut decisions, because all indications are that his top advisors consider it a bad move.
In September, while in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, John Bolton told reporters, “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
Bolton is national security advisor.
On Monday, during a presentation to the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank, James F. Jeffrey, U.S. special representative to Syria, was asked about Assad betting on a U.S. withdrawal.
“I think if that’s his strategy, he is going to have to wait a very long time,” answered Jeffrey.
This turn of events again suggests a lack of any coherent foreign policy strategy. Our allies cannot count on this unpredictable administration.
What Trump should have done is send a signal that the U.S. would stand fast with the rebel forces that drove out ISIS. Trump could then have used that position to make a diplomatic play to partition Syria, with security assured for the eastern region and Iranian forces and their military surrogates sent home.
But staying the course and pushing for a complex deal would require leadership. Donald would rather let Vladimir handle that.