The benefits and costs of Trump’s new Syria policy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview 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 MattisWhite House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: White House does damage control after Mulvaney remarks 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 GrahamErdoğan got the best of Trump, experts warn Graham: I'm seeking to make Trump successful 'but not at all costs' The Memo: Trump's sea of troubles deepens MORE (R-S.C.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Farmers: New Trump ethanol proposal reneged on previous deal Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate MORE (R-Iowa), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWhite House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours Erdoğan got the best of Trump, experts warn Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship MORE (R-Fla.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGraham, Van Hollen introduce Turkey sanctions bill Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing US envoy insists Syria pullout doesn't affect Iran strategy 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).