President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States’ estimated 2000 ground troops from Syria, justified by exaggerated claims of victory over ISIS, has sent shock waves throughout the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The decision and ensuing political fallout represented the high point of a chaotic weak for Washington, unprecedented even by the standards of the Trump administration. Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis has resigned in protest. Trump has shut down the government as a result of the refusal of House and Senate Democrats to fund his Mexican border wall. Infuriated by an imploding stock market, he has threatened to fire Federal Reserve Board chairman Jerome Powell. Following discussions with the CEOs of the six largest U.S. banks, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin has bizarrely announced that the U.S. banking system has sufficient equity for lending. Not surprisingly these actions have only served to further frighten investors and destabilize equity markets.
Does the U.S. withdrawal from Syria represent a significant evolution of Trump’s “America First” policy—the abandonment of allies and the renunciation of U.S. global leadership as proclaimed by most U.S. media as well as by Mattis himself? The situation remains fluid and the outcome of a highly complex endgame is uncertain. Syrian Kurds are facing humanitarian catastrophe at the hands of Turkish forces. The restoration of Syrian sovereignty represents a significant success for Russian diplomacy, but it does not presage a strategic U.S. retreat from the Middle East and its vast energy resources.
However, while domestic factors have clearly played a role, the decision to withdraw ultimately reflects Washington’s accommodation to geopolitical realities. The United States has suffered a significant defeat in Syria. Neither Obama nor Trump was willing to commit large numbers of ground troops to the region. The United States successfully deployed air power against ISIS but was unable to bring about regime change in Damascus or even realize its second-best objective of de facto partition.
Such a partition, based on alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and militia fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Rojava and encompassing Syria’s oil fields, was to have provided the basis for a longer-term confrontation with Iran. But the strategy proved unworkable in the face of cooperation between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
It is not clear what understandings have been reached between Erdogan and Trump. Turkey has agreed to purchase U.S. Patriot missiles while denying that this will imperil the reported S-400 deal with Russia.
Facing almost certain abandonment by Washington, Syria’s Kurds will look to Damascus and Moscow for support. As it fills the vacuum caused by the impending U.S. withdrawal, can Russia use its increased leverage to support the re-integration of a semi-autonomous Kurdistan within the sovereign Syrian Arab Republic, followed eventually by free and fair elections?