Trump’s Syria Decision and the Damage to US Foreign Policy

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision on October 6 to order US troops to stand aside as Turkey launched a long-planned incursion into northeastern Syria has completely upended US policy in the Middle East. The damage to American interests may indeed be irreversible, despite the President’s apparent decision to leave a few troops behind after all to “secure the oil.” But while President Trump touched off this latest disaster himself, he is pursuing a course of disinterest and disengagement from the region set by former President Barack Obama. Their mutual ambivalence toward the region, and the consequences of a crisis a long time in the making, have implications far beyond Syria itself, going to the heart of America’s global standing and national security strategy.

Winners and losers may be relatively easy to sort out—and this is important to understanding the far-reaching costs of the decision—but the real question raised by the present crisis is: what role does the United States want to play in the Middle East, and on the world stage?

Who Has Won?

While it is still early, the major winners and losers of the Trump policy shift are emerging with unusual clarity and rapidity.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, for one, must be dancing for joy in his hilltop palace in Damascus. Turkey’s incursion led to the swift collapse of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the erstwhile US allies in the fight against the Islamic State. The largest component of the SDF is the Kurdish militia YPG (People’s Protection Units), the “terrorists” that the Turkish advance seeks to crush. With the YPG on the run and the humanitarian toll rising, the SDF was forced to invite Syrian government forces into the north to interpose themselves between the local population and the invading Turkish troops, which they did to general acclaim from the locals on October 14.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, for one, must be dancing for joy in his hilltop palace in Damascus. Turkey’s incursion led to the swift collapse of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the erstwhile US allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Assad’s major allies in the brutal Syrian civil war, Russia and Iran, have emerged as major winners too. As Assad’s forces moved into positions in northern Syria, Russian forces moved with them. In a scene reminiscent of the American evacuation from Saigon in 1975, Russian mercenaries were videotaped taking control of a former US base near Manbij that had to be hastily evacuated. Moscow, which has exploited its backing of the Assad regime to entrench its military and naval positions in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, is now politically stronger in the region than at any moment since the end of the Cold War. Largely as a result of events in Syria, Russia—brandishing arms deals, economic agreements, and diplomatic summitry—has been increasingly seen as a major power broker in the region, a position until recently enjoyed almost exclusively by the United States.

From Iran’s point of view, Assad’s triumph—signed and sealed by the withdrawal of US troops, the Turkish incursion, and the return of Syrian government forces to the northeast—vindicates Tehran’s decision to come to Assad’s defense in the first place. The new situation affords more room to maneuver as Iran shores up its position and that of its ally, Hezbollah, in Syria. The political and military capital Tehran has earned will enhance its position not only vis-à-vis Israel but also Saudi Arabia, as tensions between the two countries intensify.

The Islamic State (IS), of course, is another winner. While Turkey has announced it will take over the fight against remnants of IS, a fight the October 6 White House statement gladly handed off to Ankara, it does not appear to have the wherewithal to organize, mount, and sustain a campaign against IS on its own.

The situation is deteriorating rapidly. Already, the Islamic State is increasing pressure on the remaining YPG forces as it plans additional jail breaks of the some 12,000 IS prisoners and family members whom the Syrian Kurds had been guarding. Handed a propaganda windfall, IS media arms are busily jeering the Kurds as abandoned American castoffs and promising more terrorism to come—and there has been a sharp uptick in IS attacks in the last few days. Hundreds of IS family members have already escaped from prison camps as Kurdish guard forces melt away; further, US plans to transfer some five dozen high-value detainees out of the country had to be abandoned in the middle of the hasty American redeployment.

Handed a propaganda windfall, IS media arms are busily jeering the Kurds as abandoned American castoffs and promising more terrorism to come—and there has been a sharp uptick in IS attacks in the last few days.

With approximately 14,000-18,000 IS fighters remaining in Syria and Iraq, according to the United Nations, the breakdown unfolding in northeastern Syria is just what the Islamic State needs as an operational boost, recruiting tool, and motivational strategy. Senior Iraqi officials are already worried that an IS reboot will serve to destabilize Iraq too.

Who Has Lost?

The civilian population of northeastern Syria is bearing the brunt of the Turkish onslaught. According to a statement by the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson,  there are “many civilian casualties” and at least 160,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. The International Committee of the Red Cross believes as many as 300,000 may eventually be displaced. Severe shortages of clean water and available shelter are exacerbating the problem, and services provided by international humanitarian organizations are under serious stress. In addition, reports of atrocities by pro-Turkish Syrian militias have begun to surface; at least nine civilians are alleged to have been summarily executed, including the Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and her driver. These killings raise the possibility of intensified ethnic violence in the near future.

Syrian refugees now living in Turkey would also be victimized on a grand scale if Turkey makes good on its threat to resettle them in an established 20-mile wide “safe zone” along its border with Syria. Forcible repatriation of refugees to any country, including their own (termed “refoulement” according to UNESCO), is clearly forbidden by international law; without a well-organized and resourced scheme for refugee resettlement, including a security plan to protect returning refugees from Syrian government forces, a second humanitarian disaster is bound to develop.

Syrian Kurds are the biggest and most obvious losers on the political-military front. The YPG provided the bulk of the fighters in the US-led campaign against IS and suffered 11,000 casualties in the process. However, that now counts for nothing in either Washington or Ankara. With their major international backer, the United States, having abandoned them, Syrian Kurds are largely at the mercy of the Turkish military and they will be subject to retribution from Assad’s forces, once the Turkish onslaught has subsided.

Syrian Kurds are the biggest and most obvious losers on the political-military front.

Israel may be the biggest loser that is not directly affected by the fighting. The US decision to abandon the Kurds and allow the Turks, Russians, and Iranians to settle the future of Syria throws Israeli strategic calculations into turmoil and gives all three actors—with which Israel has had strained or actively hostile relations—powerful leverage over Tel Aviv. The probable resurgence of the Islamic State may throw a new set of threats and challenges at Israel, not least from the regional instability an IS recrudescence could touch off.

Perhaps even more important, Israel may have lost the sense that the United States can still be counted upon to come to its defense. If Washington could abandon friends and allies like the Kurds, the thinking goes, Israel could just as easily be next. Without that sense of surety, Israel will be sorely tempted to take a go-it-alone approach to its next crisis—perhaps one with Iran—and that could lead to dangerous and unpredictable outcomes. The recent visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel has been seen as an express effort to send the opposite message.

Serious Consequences for American Foreign Policy

Figuring out losers and winners may be the easy part. Less easy, but at least as important, is determining the costs and consequences of the Syria debacle for American foreign policy.

The first casualty is American credibility. This is a difficult commodity to define, except perhaps by the consequences of its absence. The failure to defend allies and honor promises, sudden policy reversals, and unhinged rhetoric lead US partners to conclude that the United States is becoming increasingly unreliable.

Among other things, such a conclusion has encouraged allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to seek friends elsewhere, as the recent warm welcome for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi starkly illustrated. America’s faltering credibility will limit its persuasive power to rein in the worst domestic abuses of its allies, allowing gross violations of human rights and political freedoms to go unchecked, thus fueling violence and radicalism. US antagonists such as Iran will be emboldened as US deterrence power slips. And the credibility gap will further encourage America’s allies in the Gulf, Egypt, Israel, and elsewhere to set their own policy courses independent of the United States, which may damage US interests or draw Washington into an undesired conflict on someone else’s terms.

The failure to defend allies and honor promises, sudden policy reversals, and unhinged rhetoric lead US partners to conclude that the United States is unreliable.

The second casualty is any kind of strategic coherence to US foreign policy. President Trump’s cavalier, outlandish, and frequently contradictory statements on the Turkish invasion and its aftermath (the president’s letter to Erdoğan being only the latest, and possibly most egregious, example), have been all over the map. This has added to the growing sense of deterioration and chaos in US foreign policy, one that has been reinforced by several years of policy lurches, the constant turnover among the foreign affairs leadership team, the thorough politicization of the State Department, and the expanding Ukraine controversy. As a result, neither friends nor enemies have a clue what the United States will do next, making alliances more difficult to manage and prospects for cooperative problem-solving worse. Policy paralysis in Washington will ensure that should another international crisis erupt, the United States will be ill equipped to exercise any sort of effective leadership in response.

The Syria fiasco has also dealt a body blow to the administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), in particular two of its four key pillars: those that concern protecting the American people and advancing American influence. The likely reemergence of the Islamic State as a result of Trump’s policy shift in Syria virtually guarantees the multiplication of threats to the US homeland and vital interests overseas (not to mention America’s foreign allies). And the goal of encouraging aspiring partners as a means of furthering US global influence has likewise suffered a setback. Indeed, a major strategic theme of the NSS—positioning the United States to win the great power competition with Russia and China—has been badly damaged.

A Continuity of Failure

Despite his authorship of one of the worst American foreign policy disasters in the Middle East, President Trump was in some ways continuing an overarching course his predecessor, Barack Obama, began.

President Obama saw little value in maintaining American political and military leadership in the Middle East, seeking instead to ratchet down US involvement while other countries took the lead. As the situation in Libya deteriorated during the 2011 uprising against dictator Muammar Qadhafi, the Obama Administration reluctantly agreed to help spearhead a US-European intervention to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi, where the Libyan army was bent on exacting revenge for the city’s role in the rebellion. Once successful in accomplishing this objective, the administration pulled back from more active involvement in military operations, leaving the nation-building and diplomatic engagement largely to others. Initially seen in administration circles as a necessary tonic to Bush-era military adventurism in Iraq, Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind” came to be derided and looked upon as a sign of American disengagement from the region.

President Obama saw little value in maintaining American political and military leadership in the Middle East, seeking instead to ratchet down US involvement while other countries took the lead.

Iraq continued the trend. Obama’s decision to pull all remaining troops out of the country in 2011, after half-hearted attempts to reach a Status of Forces Agreement came to nothing, undercut the gains of the Iraq “surge” and helped pave the way for further violence and instability.

Furthermore, Obama’s refusal to enforce his own “red line” in 2013 against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the civil war, coupled with feckless diplomacy, epitomized his administration’s disinterest in the fate of the region beyond the Iran nuclear deal. Obama’s refusal to consider limited military involvement or even a robust effort to arm rebel forces and establish a safe zone from which they could operate left the Syrian people to fend for themselves. It also allowed Russia and Iran to take the diplomatic and military initiative and helped provide IS enough breathing room and ungoverned space to establish a foothold in the country.

Trump has been far more in tune with Obama’s approach to the region than he would ever admit. Even before his election, Trump made no secret of the fact that he regarded US involvement in “endless wars” in the Middle East to be the height of folly and promised to disengage the United States as rapidly as possible. He adopted many of Obama’s policies and tactics, such as focusing on IS to the exclusion of other significant problems, doubling down on the previous administration’s drone war, utilizing expansive arms sales as a core tool of American regional diplomacy, and supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Trump’s pursuit of these policies, like Obama’s, has been a way to distance the United States from direct involvement in on-the-ground conflict and regional power struggles, while laying the groundwork for a broader disengagement at some future point.

As with Obama’s vaunted “pivot to Asia,” however, Trump’s Middle East disengagement strategy has largely proved chimerical. And its execution, while obviously less sophisticated than the previous administration’s, has likewise resulted in chaos—the major difference being the degree: the human wreckage, broken alliances, and diplomatic damage Trump has wrought are arguably more disastrous than anything Obama provoked.

If this continuity of failure has helped create the current moment of crisis and despair in the region, it should also bring about a greater reckoning in terms of US foreign policy writ large: what role does the United States want to play in the Middle East, and indeed on the world stage? Does it still want to exercise influence in support of the international order it organized and defended, one that helped maintain stability for over 70 years? If not, what will replace it? And how?

Answers to these questions are not easy to gauge, and certainly in the midst of a constitutional crisis in Washington with foreign policy lapsing further into dysfunction and decay as a result. But the answers are vital if the United States still hopes to preserve its status as the leading power in the Middle East—or to coherently manage its decline as a world power.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency