The benefits and costs of Trump’s new Syria policy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE’s surprise announcement on Wednesday that he intends to withdraw American troops from Syria has upended the Washington foreign policy establishment — underscored by Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisThis week: House Dems voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE’s subsequent decision to resign. Senators from both sides of the political aisle have asked the president to reconsider. In a letter released to the public, lawmakers such as Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump shares Graham quote calling Ocasio-Cortez 'anti-America' Graham: Trump should focus on policy, not personal attacks The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke MORE (R-S.C.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstAcosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden looks to rebound after tough week Democratic Senate hopes hinge on Trump tide MORE (R-Iowa), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: FTC reportedly settles with Facebook for B fine | Trump calls to regulate Facebook's crypto project | Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract | Study shows automation will hit rural areas hardest Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract later this summer Rubio asks White House to delay B Pentagon contract over Amazon concerns   MORE (R-Fla.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran Senators urge Trump to sanction Turkey for accepting Russian missile shipment Female senators invite US women's soccer team to visit Capitol MORE (D-N.H.) called the decision a “premature and costly mistake that not only threatens the safety and security of the United States, but also emboldens ISIS, (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia."

The president’s decision to end the Syrian chapter in the American Long War in the Middle East is consistent with his worldview.  “I want to get out,” he said in March.  “I want to bring those troops home.” Critics have glossed over potential gains from his unilateral decision.

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Syria long has been a problem in U.S.-Russian relations. Both superpowers have troops in the country, and there have been firefights between them — something that both sides avoided throughout the Cold War. In February, 30 members of Delta Force came under attack by approximately 500 pro-Syrian government forces, many of whom were Russian mercenaries.  Consistent with its policies in conflict zones such as Ukraine, the Kremlin denied there were any Russian troops in the area. This allowed the American forces to decimate the aggressors without fear of triggering a superpower conflict, but a miscalculation could have had serious geopolitical consequences.

President Trump’s announced withdrawal will eliminate the chances of future U.S.-Russian clashes in Syria. It also will lower the temperature in the overall relations between the United States and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave guarded praise to the decision to withdraw, although he questioned the sincerity of the announcement. “As far as the withdrawal of U.S. troops is concerned, I really don't understand what it's about, because the U.S. has been present for some 17 years in Afghanistan," he said. "They're still talking about withdrawing them, but they haven't done it yet."

The decision to leave Syria also removes a major problem in U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan long has criticized U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish rebels, arguing the American allies were members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist group. In October, Erdogan announced a pending Turkish military operation against the American allies. “We will soon crush nests of terrorists to the east of the Euphrates,” he told Turkish commandos. This month he said the operation would begin in “a few days.” By contrast, Turkish officials announced their approval of the American pull-out and said it was consistent with talks Presidents Trump and Erdogan recently held on the telephone.

Improved relations with Russia and Turkey are offset by the costs, however. While the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance has solidified Assad’s hold on power in Damascus, the American withdrawal establishes Iran as the major power in the Middle East. Nicholas Heras, the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East fellow, characterized the new balance of power as providing Iran with “solid control over the entire arc of the Levant from Baghdad to Beirut."  This marks a solid defeat for America’s plan to force Iranian troops to move back inside that country’s borders. White House national security adviser John Bolton recently told the United Nations that the United States would not withdraw from Syria as long as there were Iranian troops there. “That includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he said.

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Israel also is concerned about the American move. With U.S. troops gone, there are no more barriers to Iranian moves to support Hezbollah on Israel’s northern borders. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, hardliner Danny Danon, expressed concern about America’s moves.  Senior Israeli politicians and military officers shared his concern.

The group that will be hurt the most are the Syrian Kurds, who now will be hemmed in between the Assad regime to the east and south, and the Turkish Army to the north. In many ways, the Kurds have been an arm of the American global war on terrorism and, despite the president’s tweet that ISIS has been destroyed, ISIS remains a destabilizing force in the region. According to the Pentagon, as of August there still were up to 14,500 ISIS fighters in Syria. “That’s intelligence that presumably sat on Trump’s desk while he proclaims victory this morning,” said Charles Lister, director of countering terrorism and extremism at the Middle East Institute.

The president, who claims to be different from his predecessors, appears to be following in their footsteps. In 1974, the United States declared victory in securing peace in South Vietnam and withdrew its forces. Saigon fell the following year to the communists. In 2011, President Obama declared victory in Iraq and withdrew American troops. This created the vacuum that allowed ISIS to grow, forcing the United States to return to the region shortly thereafter.

President Trump wants regional powers to take America’s place in Syria, but he appears to have paved the road for Iran and Russia to fill the vacuum.  

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously was director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, first secretary for political-military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and a special assistant to the FBI/New York Joint Terrorism Task Force. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts” (2017).