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Trump’s Syria withdrawal: The right idea, disastrously executed

U.S. special operators are livid. And rightfully so. After years of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with their Kurdish brothers in arms, President Trump’s surprise withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria amounts to an unconscionable betrayal of key American allies.

Trump’s impulsive decision handed Turkey the green light to slaughter the Kurds, an ethnic group that mounted the only effective ground campaign against the depraved barbarism of the Islamic State. If selling out America’s closest non-state allies was not bad enough, Trump’s rash move destroyed U.S. credibility on the battlefield. 

Local non-state groups, often critical to securing U.S. national security objectives, will have serious doubts about trusting American troops and intelligence officers in the future. In short, the long-term security implications of Trump’s impulsive withdrawal are enormous. Frantic attempts to backtrack are far too little, too late.

Perhaps worst of all, Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds to an Ottoman slaughter amounted to a shameful “wag the dog”-style distraction from the enormous scandal engulfing his presidency. The media frenzy that followed Trump’s withdrawal served as a Roy Cohn-worthy diversion from his (per Fox News) “criminal and impeachable” behavior. Indeed, the inexplicable nature of Trump’s Syria retreat proved just as baffling as his decision to (corruptly) withhold crucial military aid to Ukraine.

Despite the monumental pitfalls of Trump’s Syria drawdown, the eventual departure of U.S. troops from northern Syria represents a coherent, logical strategy. Trump just went about it in the worst, most disastrously self-interested way. 

From a geopolitical perspective, Russia and Iran have invested staggering resources into propping up the Syrian government. Understandably so. With very few allies on the international stage, Russia and Iran’s posture – which, these days, largely amounts to defending the few friends that they have left – should hardly be surprising. With this reality in mind, there is strikingly little benefit to further backing Moscow and Tehran into a corner – or baiting them into conflict – by keeping U.S. troops in their client state’s territory.

Continuing down such a path will all but ensure another round of (in Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and President Trump’s words) “forever wars.” Indeed, increasingly isolated states are far more likely to lash out. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recent Iranian mischief exemplify this phenomenon. Both cases ultimately led to the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops.

Of course, Russia and Iran do themselves no PR favors by defending Bashar al-Assad, the murderous dictator ruling Syria. But should Assad fall, Syria (and the broader Middle East) would rapidly devolve into yet another jihadist-fueled calamity; except that the collapse of the Assad regime would make the rise of the Islamic State seem like a picnic.

Moreover, Assad’s Syria is a multi-sectarian state. Sunnis, Shias, Alawites, Christians, and Druze live in relative harmony in regime-controlled areas. This stands in stark contrast to the Sunni extremists that Turkey and Saudi Arabia support in northern Syria.

With these realities in mind, logic dictates that Russia and Iran should continue to expend precious resources propping up their Syrian ally.

Despite endless Washington hand-wringing about a long-term Iranian presence in Syria, Tehran’s mobilization there is a fait accompli. Rather than deterring further Iranian deployments, a small contingent of U.S. troops tucked into a corner of northeastern Syria amounts to an easy target for (thanks to Trump’s disastrous “maximum pressure” campaign) an increasingly aggressive Iran

Moreover, despite Iran’s significant footprint in Syria, Damascus and Tehran are uneasy allies. This makes for a shaky inter-state dynamic ripe for future exploitation.

Geopolitical considerations aside, the resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group continues apace. Had Trump strategically and methodically withdrawn U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, he would have brokered a Syrian-Kurdish truce before removing American forces. A joint Kurdish-Syrian-Russian-Iranian partnership would boast both the operational capability and the motivation to stamp out the last of the Islamic State’s jihadists and keep the lid on any reemergence of the terrorist group.

Perhaps more importantly, U.S. and Western military operations against the Islamic State place the United States and its allies squarely in the Islamic State’s crosshairs. Virtually all recent jihadist attacks in the United States and Europe were couched in the Quranic concept of “defensive” jihad. This all-important catalyst for jihadist violence leads radicalized individuals to believe that it is their supreme duty to violently “defend” their coreligionists (perceived as) under attack by non-Muslims anywhere in the world.

The notion of “defensive” jihad explains, for example, how a radicalized individual in Florida believed that it was his divine obligation to violently “defend” his coreligionists in Syria and Iraq by conducting a horrific mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub.

As such, shifting the burden of finishing off the Islamic State to Iran, Russia and Syria realizes U.S. key counterterrorism goals. With other states taking the reins, would-be jihadists are hard-pressed to rationalize attacks against the United States and its Western allies under the guise of “defensive” jihad.

A gradual, strategically-executed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria also leaves Russia and Iran to continue expending significant resources propping up their long-time Syrian client. As noted above, this is sound strategy, as the collapse of the Syrian regime would result in yet another catastrophic Middle Eastern power vacuum

Similarly, in light of recent Russian and (Trump-induced) Iranian aggression, a contingent of U.S. troops in Syria would be vulnerable to Russo-Persian provocations, exposing the United States to an endless string of “forever wars.”

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.

Tags Bashar al-Assad Bashar Assad Donald Trump Iraq Iran Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Koran Kurds in Syria Russia Syria Syrian civil war Syrian civil war Terrorism Tulsi Gabbard Turkey Ukraine

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