Trump's tweet surprise Tuesday was a goodbye note to the U.S. military presence in Syria. It caught the Washington establishment and part of Trump’s own administration by surprise. Alas, it shouldn’t have. Trump has been consistent on his opposition to a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria.
Already in 2013, he tweeted “Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” during the heated discussion about the then-expected Obama military retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Trump knows his political constituency does not want to see the U.S. in another protracted war in the Middle East. Trump wants to fix the U.S. infrastructure, not pay for other countries’ reconstruction with American taxpayers’ money.
In fact, the same surprise was already registered by many—including Trump’s military leaders — back in April, when he announced a new Syria policy, stating "I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home." Trump added that the U.S. had gotten "nothing out of $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years." He also put the brakes on $200 million US stabilization funding in Syria.
Following that announcement, we hosted a panel discussion on Syria at the Hudson Institute, titled "Should I stay or should I go now?” (yes, borrowing the title from a song, fittingly, by the Clash.) Our conclusion was that Trump was consistently looking for the exit door after the military defeat of ISIS, notwithstanding the military and diplomatic advice to the contrary. Still, the U.S. envoy to the coalition against ISIS, Brett H. McGurk took the podium in State Department for a little over a week ago and talked about the US military had to stay longer, to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Inside the administration, and in particular in the Pentagon, the thinking was that there was a modus vivendi with Trump for staying on in Syria. The backdrop was when curbing Iran’s influence got bounced up the priority ladder of the administration’s policies. The calculus was that the U.S. needed a ground presence to have any opportunity to reduce Iranian militias and influence in Syria.
And in internal meetings, the specter of Obama’s 2009 Iraq withdrawal was put forward to Trump as an example of the security vacuum a hasty U.S. decision would create. Trump has said during the presidential campaign that Obama’s decision created ISIS. But in the end, it was once again not enough to deter Trump from following his gut instinct: after a military victory, the U.S. should get out. Post-conflict stabilization should be paid for by others – and the administration can bag some success on this front with stepped-up contributions from Europeans and the Gulf to shoulder the windfall after Trump turned the spigot on U.S. funding in April. But not all parts of U.S. foreign policy can be outsourced.
There is audible delight in Moscow, Tehran and Damascus over Trump’s decision. It puts the final nail in the coffin of "Assad must go" approach that Obama articulated in 2011 and was sometimes still echoed in the corridors of the Trump administration. This also spells the end of dreams about a power transition and the emergence of a somewhat democratic Syria, if any such dreams remained.
At the same time, the decision dents American and Israeli possibilities for pushing Iran back to its own borders. Iran will stay in Syria. And last but not least, it provided Putin’s Russia with an unexpected but welcome Christmas gift and an opportunity to make Russia great again in the Middle East. For Erdogan, who had a hand in convincing Trump to make the decision, it might spell short-term benefit of removing the U.S. buffer against the Kurds in Syria, but in the long-term, Turkey is left facing Iran and Russia alone.
For the Syrian Kurds in the YPG and SDF-forces, the move spells an uncertain future. The international coalition against ISIS, led by the U.S., worked with the SDF, even as the Kurds were pressured from the north, where Turkey’ invaded northern Syria mostly to break up any possibility for an even semi-autonomous Kurdish area.
The flare point was and will again be Manbij, the town where Turkey is eyeing a take-over and only the mediation of US military has kept conflict at bay. Even for hardened US special forces in Syria, leaving their SDF allies to an uncertain future, surrounded by enemies, will draw emotions.
For post-conflict stabilization of the ghost towns left after ISIS’ devastation and the air and combat operations to drive them out, this decision creates uncertainty. Although allies had stepped up funding these efforts in Raqqa and beyond, the U.S. military presence was the security glue which made the work of civilian advisors and de-mining experts possible. Already, ISIS had launched an insurgency in Raqqa and is conducting assassinations and bombings to remind the local population that they could easily be back.
Both Obama and Trump ultimately do not believe in America's transformative power in the conflict. Obama, memorably, wanted to “avoid doing stupid s**t." To him, using U.S. military power in Syria fell into that basket. Trump wants to win a war over ISIS and avoid wasting money in Syria. Both point to a greatly diminished U.S. leadership role in the Middle East and beyond. It is a world where regional allies will have to fight on their own. Israel’s pragmatic engagement with Russia is a testimony to that.
Obama had his red line, which quickly faded into a non-existing line in the sand. Tuesday's decision might make Trump have to learn a novel word in his Twitter vocabulary: A pyrrhic victory.