Does the US Withdrawal from Syria Represent a Significant Evolution of Trump’s America First Policy?

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.

Where Does the US Pullout from Syria Leave Turkey and the Kurds?
Russian and Iranian willingness to go along with Turkey's plans in Syria largely stems from the U.S. presence there. It is doubtful that Moscow and Tehran would tolerate Turkey getting control of oil-rich north-eastern Syria as well as strategic dams and fertile agricultural fields. What Ankara would have preferred was a continuing US presence in Syria and an agreement with Washington that would have green-lighted a limited Turkish cross-border military operation into Northern Syrian towns.
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© Turkish Defense Ministry via AP, Pool
The apparent abruptness of the decision—marked by a failure to consult with key NATO allies, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as well as domestic advisors--suggests the influence of domestic politics. Trump faces growing legal and political peril at the hands of an incoming Democratic House majority even as he appears to be losing support from key Senate Republicans. His poll numbers are declining amid ominous signs of economic disarray. While the decision has antagonized the Washington establishment, the withdrawal from Syria and a reported significant reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan are deeply popular among a U.S. public that has grown weary of foreign wars.

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.

Tripartite Summit in Ankara and Possible Change of the US Middle East Policy
The meeting of presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran on April 4 in Ankara promises to bring extremely important agreements on the fate of Syria. Apparently, there will be also a discussion on the achievements in all their complexities and interests.
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© Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev
On December 14 Turkish president Erdogan informed Trump that his forces would evict Kurdish forces from Manbij and then carry out a full-scale assault on Rojava. Unwilling to be dragged into a military clash with Turkey, Trump instead prioritized his relations with his difficult NATO ally, reportedly telling Erdogan “We are done. It’s all yours.”

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.

Turkey-Russia Relations: Backgammon vs Chess
What Putin knows is that Turkey is “forced to go to the hands of Russia” as never ever before since World War II. It is up to President Putin to encounter this proposal. Turkey made a move like in chess, and now it is up to chess master Putin what move he will do.
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© 2018 Uncredited/AP
The two men also apparently “heavily discussed expanded trade.” More recently, Trump has declared that the U.S. withdrawal will be “slow and highly coordinated” with Ankara while Erdogan announced on December 21 that Turkey would postpone its operations against the YPG. U.S. air power across the border in Iraq is capable of supporting 1100 French troops stationed in Manbij and Iraq. The United States can impose significant economic and financial costs on Ankara.

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? 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.