No one knows what prompted Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE, at this particular time, to promulgate his decision to pull all American troops out of Syria. Indeed, his tweeted announcement of victory in the war against ISIS came but days after his own senior administration officials, including Brett McGurk, the veteran diplomat who has served as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL since 2015, stated emphatically that the United States could not leave the country while thousands of ISIS fighters were still operating there.
But, already, we know one consequence: The president’s decision has cost America a dedicated, honorable secretary of Defense who refused to trade his integrity for his Cabinet position.
To begin with, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not merely being polite in welcoming the decision. America’s withdrawal of its 2,000 troops in Syria will firmly establish Russia as the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, and even Saudi Arabia, in addition to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, already maintain excellent relations with Moscow and appear to have anticipated Russia’s return to regional prominence. And Russia will be the arbiter of Syria’s future.
Moreover, Putin will be able to argue credibly that while Washington once again is a fickle and unreliable ally — having betrayed the Syrian Kurds as it previously betrayed their Iraqi cousins in 1918 and 1991, and pulled the rug from under its allies in the anti-ISIS coalition — Russia stood by the Assad regime when American and European government officials, pundits, and even President Obama asserted that his days were numbered.
For his part, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now may feel he has a free hand to attack the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection) militia and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which for the past six years has declared the area under its control as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, better known as Rojava. Erdogan long has resented the de facto alliance between Washington and the Syrian Kurds, whom he considers a branch of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK; yet, he prudently has not gone beyond sending his own troops into a 2,100-square-mile slice of northwestern Syria. Now, he can extend Turkey’s reach into his beleaguered neighbor, as his forces prosecute operations against the Kurds.
Putin and Erdogan are not the only beneficiaries of Trump’s hasty and ill-conceived decision. Far more dangerous for regional stability is the opportunity that Trump now has afforded the unholy alliance of Hezbollah and Iran to prosecute new operations against Israel from western Syria. Israel long has been an outspoken advocate of maintaining American troops in northeastern Syria, where they have been in a position to block the Iranians from having a direct route to Israel’s border, even as Israeli aircraft continue to bomb supply lines that run from Iranian positions to Hezbollah’s forces in Lebanon.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has asserted that the president’s decision could lead to “all-out war” between Israel and Iran’s proxies; once Iran has an open route through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, the current shadow war between Israel and Iran could explode into the open. The domestic pressure on the Trump administration to intervene on Israel’s behalf against Iran may then prove irresistible, and certainly will involve the commitment of far more American resources than those that, until now, have been dedicated to the Syrian operation.
With the House of Representatives soon to be in the hands of the Democrats, whom Netanyahu consciously disdained, he may come to rue the day that he decided to jettison Israel’s longstanding policy of maintaining bipartisan American support. And Israelis may have to rethink naming a Jerusalem square after the American president, and take down the many pro-Trump posters that seem to have blanketed that city’s walls.
There is one other loser, of course: The United States of America — because the decision reportedly was the last of several straws for Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE, as his letter of resignation clearly implies. What a shame; what a loss.
So, what prompted the president to make this ill-conceived decision?
He may have felt the need to deliver on his campaign promise to effect a complete troop withdrawal from Syria, once he recognized that prospects for his equally long-promised border wall with Mexico were diminishing by the hour. In that regard he may have been tipped off by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE that there simply were not enough votes to fund the wall before Democrats take over the House of Representatives in January. Indeed, he could not even be sure that making good on his threat to close down the government would actually get him the votes he needed to realize his cherished project. Thus, better to deliver on another unfulfilled campaign pronouncement.
On the other hand, as often has been his wont, Trump may have sought to divert attention from the flood of investigations, lawsuits, indictments and convictions arising not only from the 2016 presidential campaign but from other questionable financial behaviors on the part of the Trump Organization and the Trump Foundation, dating to well before he announced his candidacy in 2015.
It is equally possible that the president was trying to get back in Putin’s good graces after he was widely (though not necessarily accurately) perceived to have snubbed the Russian leader at the Buenos Aires G-20 Summit. Certainly, Putin rushed to be among the first to congratulate Trump on his decision.
Alternately, Trump may have been rewarding Erdogan for Turkey’s billion-dollar purchase of Patriot PAC-3 missiles. The Turkish leader has long pressed for an American withdrawal from Syria in order to settle accounts with the hated Syrian Kurds.
Or, perhaps, the president simply woke up and felt like making yet more headlines before the holidays.
No one will ever know what his real reasons were for his abrupt decision unless, and until, he publishes a ghost-written memoir once his presidency mercifully has come to an end.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.