The US Decision to Disengage from the Syrian Crisis

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has confirmed that more than 1,000 people have been killed in Idlib as a result of the recent shelling by Russian and Syrian government warplanes. She expressed her surprise at the international community’s total disregard for what is happening in Syria, declaring that the events amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, which demand accountability.

Unfortunately, Bachelet’s words have not been authorized by the UN Security Council, which failed to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Syria and urging that the fight against terrorism not be used as a pretext for the displacement of millions of civilians or the destruction of entire cities and the dislocation of their populations.

In Idlib, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to repeat the tactics used in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. He is fully aware that there were no international consequences or accountability for what happened in those two cities, so what prevents him from repeating the same scenario in Idlib today? Unlike in previous situations, there is no longer a safe area in northern Syria to which hundreds of thousands of civilians could flee, leaving Turkey as the only option. For its part, Turkey remains under strong public pressure to allow displaced Syrians to enter its territory to spare them from death by Assad’s air force, which demonstrated few qualms about using indiscriminate violence in Khan Sheikhoun and other cities and towns.

Unlike in previous situations, there is no longer a safe area in northern Syria to which hundreds of thousands of civilians could flee, leaving Turkey as the only option.

Unpredictability in US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era

Unpredictability has governed President Donald Trump’s foreign policy since he arrived at the White House. This has completely contradicted the mission of international institutions and undermined what international alliances have sought to avoid. Countries choose to enter into international alliances that ease political, financial, and military burdens, as demonstrated in the international coalition to eliminate the so-called Islamic State (IS). When major countries in the coalition change their decision to participate or announce such a move via Twitter without informing their allies, they create confusion and may threaten the steadfastness of all alliances. Such a scenario is especially worrisome if this unpredictability turns into daily politics, precisely since it comes from the very country that founded the alliance and led it in the past.

This aspect of US foreign policy under Trump has defined the American position on Syria. He announced on Twitter that he planned to withdraw from Syria without involving allies like France and Britain, both of which had forces on the ground in Syria. Former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis criticized this move in his recent book, indicating that this unpredictability threatens coalition building and US leadership in the international community.

The US withdrawal from Syria affected not only military interests but also international and political ones. The move allowed Russia to take the lead in Syria without accountability or oversight.

The US withdrawal from Syria affected not only military interests but also international and political ones. The move allowed Russia to take the lead in Syria without accountability or oversight; indeed, everyone today knows the extent of Russia’s disregard for accountability, justice, and human rights. Moscow is now leading an offensive to negate these concepts and threaten the international institutions that were built over the past few decades to defend and protect them.

The United States has not stood in the way of Russian policy in Syria today. It seems that Washington’s passiveness has allowed Moscow to expand its role in Syria and pursue its interests there. This will have far-reaching repercussions on US policy and credibility in the Middle East.

Despite its significant investment in the Middle East over the past decades, the United States has begun to pull back, creating an environment that has benefited other players in the region. Iran is perhaps the biggest beneficiary, first in Iraq and second in Syria, where it is establishing a large military presence despite US and Israeli warnings and military strikes. This indicates that threats made by the United States are no longer taken seriously and that US credibility is at stake.

The current situation, of course, corresponds to a Russian expansion that has encouraged Arab states such as Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and others to get closer to the Russian side, which they see as having greater influence in the Middle East in the long run.

To be sure, the loss of trust among allies is often the first consequence of the Trump Administration’s unpredictable policy. This is exactly what occurred between the United States and France when Trump suddenly announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. The American president has gained a reputation for making decisions without consulting with allies, which has led actors in the Syrian conflict to believe that the United States cannot be trusted. Such confusion and mistrust may explain the absence of a European initiative for resolving the Syrian crisis.

To be sure, the loss of trust among allies is often the first consequence of the Trump Administration’s unpredictable policy.

The effects of this policy of unpredictability seem to weigh heavily in the Turkish-American relationship regarding Syria. The long-term US position toward Turkey has undergone substantive changes, including threats of sanctioning the NATO ally. Trump has also taken to Twitter to make menacing warnings about the Turkish economy—one of many actions that have undermined Turkey’s trust in its nominal ally. In addition, Trump’s permanent changes in the US position on Syria and his unwillingness to inform Turkey before major decisions are made have further exacerbated the rising tensions between the two countries.

The Turkish-American Clash in Syria

After the announcement of a joint US-Turkish patrol on the Syrian-Turkish border in the area that Turkey calls a “safe zone,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demonstrated the wide gap between American and Turkish views on Syria when he said that “it seems that our ally is looking for a safe zone for the terrorist organization, not for us.” This comment points to the difference in how the sides understand the concept of a safe zone in northern Syria. Washington refers to the area as a “safe zone” and wants to use it to protect Kurdish fighters who assisted the United States in fighting IS. Turkey’s concept of a “safe zone” is aimed at preventing these same Kurdish groups from concentrating their forces in the area while also preparing to transfer perhaps as many as one million Syrian refugees there from Turkey. The goal of this resettlement is to lighten the burden of the Syrian refugees on Turkey, particularly after their subject became a major domestic political issue. Erdoğan may now feel pressured to push a resettlement program after the main Turkish opposition won the mayoral election in Istanbul, a city that has historically been a stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party, as well as other major cities.

Therefore, the ongoing negotiations between Turkey and the United States will not likely lead to a solution between the two sides, especially since the gap between them seems impossible to bridge. All Turkey can do now is to find ways to avoid the potentially increasing American pressure on its economy or other major domestic and international issues. Ankara may have realized that it could not rely on Trump’s unpredictable policy for developing a long-term strategy in Syria, which is what led Turkey slowly to coordinate its Syria strategy with Russia. Still, however, Turkey has collided with Russia over its decision not to respect the agreements reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, which provide for the establishment and protection of de-escalation zones, the major Turkish plan for northern Syria.

Ankara may have realized that it could not rely on Trump’s unpredictable policy for developing a long-term strategy in Syria, which is what led Turkey slowly to coordinate its Syria strategy with Russia.

It is not hard to see that Turkey is in a very difficult position: neither Washington nor Moscow have built the necessary trust with Ankara to respect its basic interests in Syria, a situation that could lead to further divergences and escalations in Turkish-Russian or Turkish-American relations. This could also lead to difficulties in any future efforts to resolve the refugee crisis in Europe, especially if thousands of displaced Syrians try to cross from Turkey again. President Erdoğan has actually threatened to open the crossings for refugees to Europe if his safe zone plan was not accepted. With Syrian and Russian forces worsening the situation in northern Syria, the Turkish president finds that he is in a bind and needs to come up with a plan that does not only protect Turkish interests in Syria but gives him a tool to defend himself against domestic pressures by political opponents ready to exploit his weaknesses.

Radwan Ziadeh is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Radwan and read his previous publications click here