01.01.2019 Author: Seth Ferris

Trump’s Pullout in Syria: 2 Steps Forward in US Foreign Policy


At first impression it would be naive to believe that Donald Trump is keeping his campaign promise to downsize America’s foreign military engagements based on some moral compass, or by realising that America has gotten itself into a bigger quagmire than before, even greater than the one he inherited from Obama with his unexpected decision to withdraw US forces from Syria and downsize in Afghanistan.

But the order to withdraw US has nevertheless been signed. So what does it really mean, what’s the motivation for it and what will be the blowback?

It gets complicated and with many layers. Despite what pundits claim, Israel and others are not at all dumfounded by Trump’s actions, and it has more to do with moving forward America’s agenda than a ploy to save his presidency. Some even claim that the American withdrawal “will have dangerous consequences for Washington’s allies in the Middle East, especially Israel, as recently purported by the Jerusalem Post.

James Mattis, the former US Secretary of Defense, has questioned Trump’s right to make such a decision, as he was doing even before his recent resignation. This is a strange step for a US public servant to take however, as the last time I read the US Constitution; the President is still the Commander in Chief.

Much more is involved, and the unexpected announcement took many by surprise, especially those closest to the US president and those who are supposed to be in the know.

The number of US troops in Syria is not the issue. There are currently about 2,600 service members in the country, not the many thousands you would expect, when set against the weight of verbiage which propelled them there. The issue for many, on a superficial level, is that the pullout means that Trump is turning his back on Kurdish fighters who have carried the burden in the fight against ISIS.

It is doubtful that Trump making a burnt offering of a temporary ally, the Kurds, to Turkey, a NATO member with the largest standing army in the region and the largest armed forces of any NATO member country? If so, who benefits from this, and are they the usual suspects in this age of interference and emolument?

But who benefits the most?

According to the Washington Post, and most other commentators, it is indeed Russia, Turkey and Iran who will benefit the most from Trump’s actions. But examination of a few facts gives the lie to this notion.

Consider the following:

  1. Turkey is an instrument of US regional policy, and has more utility in that context than as part of a mopping up operation the Kurds and Americans could have collaborated with in finishing off ISIS fighters, or terrorists, or however you want to best describe the once-moderate Syrian opposition.
  2. What is happening on the ground is being well-coordinated with Israel.
  3. The plan is to allow Turkey and Israel to take over where the Americans and Russians have left off, to keep the pot stirred.
  4. Pullout will allow the US to withdraw to a strategic depth in Iraq and watch from the sidelines, letting the regional “big boys” decides the fate of Syria-Lebanon-Hezbollah and Iran.
  5. It will also bear a much-needed political dividend for Trump at home, at least amongst those who wanted him to keep his campaign promises.
  6. The ultimate US target remains Iran, and the US is not going to just allow Iran to consolidate its political and military gains (via Hezbollah).
  7. If the situation in Syria stabilizes, Iran will be able to deal more effectively with Saudi Arabia via Yemen and other proxy fighters.
  8. The timing of the pullout is also convenient for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he is already besieged on many fronts due to his domestic policies, having to faced corruption charges and his hardcore position on the Palestinians.

This being so, Trump is not satisfying the countries the official US regards as its enemies. Instead, he is supporting Israel and the US itself and putting greater pressure on Iran – as it might have been reported, had the president been more aligned with intelligent opinion.

The domestic meltdown of the Israeli political leadership is not unlike that of Trump himself in the US. Trump has reason to try and come to the rescue of Benjamin Netanyahu, a besieged friend and co-conspirator who is also soon likely to be charged with various crimes back in Israel.

The impact of the BDS movement is also a factor. Such has been the political fallout over this that the US is trying to force people not to support it, with measures reminiscent of the East German attempts to stop its people emigrating before the Berlin Wall was flung up overnight to imprison them. But it will be very difficult enforce efforts to stop people supporting boycotts of Israel when push comes to shove, so other means are necessary to protect Israel, and promoting its position in Syria by default is as good a one as any.

Talking Turkey

It also comes as no surprise that Trump has told how he has spoken with Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan to coordinate a “slow and highly coordinated pullout.”

“I just had a long and productive call with Turkish President Erdogan. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home….”

Trump has also announced that “he has no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq, a week after announcing a surprise pullout of troops from Syria.” If he was abandoning the Kurds, he would leave Iraq too. A “slow and highly co-ordinated pullout” probably means replacing troops who have served their time in Iraq with those who have seen action in Syria, and it is these Iraq veterans who will actually be coming home.

After all, this is better than admitting defeat. ISIS has lost a lot of territory in Iraq, and the US can claim this as a victory, despite all the support it has actually given to ISIS. In Syria it is the other way round: the US is staring defeat in the face, and defeat at the hands of the Russians, through their support of Assad, which is even worse.

The US has never really recovered from Vietnam: the Trump supporters who want to “Make America Great Again” are referring to a “Great” era before that long-drawn-out US military disaster, before Nixon, Ford the nonentity and Carter the wimp. Trump has little choice but to get out of Syria now. This will give him breathing room and time to work on larger regional, Iran, and domestic objectives.

One of those larger objectives is keeping his campaign promise to build the border wall with Mexico. He is not going to get that through Congress, so he has shut down the government. Such a drastic action may get publicity, but leaving the country without government services can never be considered a victory, even an alternative one.

In the meantime Trump needs to make good on some other campaign promise, with impeachment in the offing in a very short time—and tossing a bone to some of the hardcore neo-cons to chew on while his continues with his own agenda of American Exceptionalism and regaining US reputation in the region.

His plans for the Middle East may best be perceived “as the first step in preparing Americans for the end of global hegemony”—and this in fact will be the foundation for actually making America Great Again.

Below the surface

Some would like us to believe that this withdrawal will pull Iran and its proxy forces deeper into the conflict, thus giving a green light to Iran to continue its activities in the war-torn country.It is more a bit more complicated than that, and Israel is not at all dumfounded by Trump’s actions, Regardless of those who claim that the American withdrawal will contribute to such an eventuality, and how it “will have dangerous consequences for Washington’s allies in the Middle East, especially Israel, as recently purported by the Jerusalem Post.

It is worth mentioning that ISIS loss of physical territory is not the same thing as a defeat as Trump has claimed. This raises many additional questions as where are many of the fighters today, have they been moved out to other regions, even redeployed?

Those that know the history of the Syria conflict know only too well that these fighters are proxy ones, and could never have existed in the first place without the close collaboration of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In the wake of the withdrawal Syria will want to reassert its rights of territory integrity. In spite of claims by some, Turkey is not willing to make an Armenian standard genocide action against the Kurds, as that would really complicate the regional situation as a whole – and Turkish and US reputation even further.

Does not Turkey already have enough problems at home with a substantial Kurdish population and a government that is implicated in too much of what has transpired in Syria?

But it will likely try to provide a buffer zone in some areas and Turkish inclusions in Kurdish held areas is highly likely

There is little doubt in retrospect that Turkey directly supplied ISIS. It openly acted as its quarter master with Saudi money in “training and equipping” the terrorists, sorry, (moderate head cutting opposition) in the first place, and last but not least acted as the middle man in selling looted Syrian and Iraqi oil.

Pulling it all together

In the final analysis, likely a deal has been cut with Turkey and Russia over the withdrawal and all players will be allowed to save face or consolidate their gains. What few are mentioning is what right did the US to deploy troops in Syria in the first place? That is but moot issue for now

. One thing, is certain, however, the US should be less inclined to get entangled in faraway and complicated conflicts. Trump knows that the American people don’t have the stomach and stomach to these conflicts to the end. He also knows what he needs to do in order to serve a second term in office.

Trump pulling out of Syria should be viewed as a moment of geo-political flux. The move is mostly viewed as an impulse by Trump, but the U.S. president’s policies always have a lining of profit for somebody, and that is Trump as the jackpot winner.

Look at who is going to win from the pullout. One thing is certain: everybody is against Trump’s decision, all the president’s men, Republican political leadership. This is what makes the decision highly admirable—a stoke of genus.

But still, who really knows, a game, charade, no way of telling?

It is necessary to learn to accept we cannot know Trump’s and the men behind the curtain full intentions. I would like to believe that Trump is actually fulfilling his campaign promises. Then too, some of his distracters, natural bad guys but probably pals of Trump, playing the good/bad cop.

Do not trust anything they say or do, best policy “wait and see” until they show their cards. It reminds me in some ways of Kissinger and Nixon playing a double negotiation/war game over Vietnam.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”