“We have won against ISIS”, declared President Donald Trump in a Twitter video on Wednesday night. “We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home.” After a day of reporting that the United States has decided on a rapid, total withdrawal from Syria, here was the confirmation. It is a policy course fraught with danger and very likely to lead to outcomes unfavourable to Western interests, whether defined in humanitarian or strategic terms.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly voiced his desire to leave Syria. The only focus Trump ever had in Syria was ISIS. The Syrian rebellion, which had received such half-hearted support from the US, was declared untrustworthy and probably worse than the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Trump was “a fan” of “the Kurds”, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that the US had chosen as its counter-ISIS ground force. Assad and Russia could be a helpful partners against terrorism in Syria, Trump thought. Trump’s instincts mirrored President Barack Obama’s. The one departure was Iran, where Trump indicated a break with Obama’s tilt towards the revolutionary theocracy. After this week that, too, has passed.
Trump’s first year in office started promisingly in Syria. The Obama plan to liberate Raqqa, ISIS’s Syrian “capital”, using the PKK, was put on hold. This seemed to allow space to create a locally-legitimate alternative that could keep ISIS down. Turkey made clear its willingness to do the heavy lifting in Raqqa, a chance to repair a relationship strained by the US’s support for the PKK, which has waged 35-year war against the Turkish state. And in April 2017, Trump launched a barrage of cruise missiles at the Assad regime in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons against civilians, a sharp break with Obama’s passivity when his “red line” was crossed in 2013.
Having demonstrated that America was “back”, Trump could have accepted the Turks’ offer for Raqqa and headed to his first overseas trip, a summit in Riyadh in May 2017, to ask what his Saudi hosts were going to do to match the Turkish offer. It was not to be. The PKK-led Raqqa operation was soon put back online, the rebels were cut off entirely, and the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition was invited to take as much territory as it could from ISIS in eastern Syria. By the end of 2017, in short, Trump had in all essentials adopted Obama’s Syria policy — minus the deceptive rhetoric.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to chart a different path in January 2018, but he was dismissed in mid-March 2018 and two weeks later, Trump made an unscripted remark at a rally saying, “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” At the White House five days later, Trump reiterated his point: “As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission … was getting rid of ISIS. We’ve almost completed that task … I want to get out. I want to bring our troops home.” These remarks created a bureaucratic panic, and Trump was prevailed on by his staff.
Trump then appeared to reverse himself again. The US withdrew from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal, and Mike Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, outlining an expansive US role in Syria, turning the mission from one against ISIS to one against Iran. On 6 September, The Washington Post reported via State Department officials that the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran would include financial sanctions and staying in Syria until Iran left. This meant, as the new US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey put it, “we are not in a hurry”.
During this period, when one expressed doubts to administration officials about the content of this plan, there was always the reassurance that more was occurring than met the eye and one simply had to wait and see. Now we can see.
Trump always wanted out
What was missed in April was that Trump had conceded on an immediate withdrawal from Syria, but his outlook had not changed. Senior administration officials confirmed as much to The New York Times. Trump said, after a testy Cabinet meeting, he could “support” Defence Secretary James Mattis’ proposal to keep troops to finish ISIS’s territorial strongholds, The Times reported, “as long as the operation lasted months rather than years” and Trump could “bring troops home” at the end of it. That Mattis resigned yesterday can be taken as an indication he does not feel the President allowed this mission to be completed.
It was not too difficult to see this coming. As Oved Lobel and I noted on these pages in March, the US needed to fundamentally alter aspects of its mission in Syria, including rebalancing relations with its partners, or else it would find itself too isolated for its position to be sustainable — for the anti-ISIS campaign, let alone moving against Iran. As it transpired, this was irrelevant since Trump did not want a durable position in Syria for either purpose.
Jeffrey and his team have been the most gravely embarrassed by this. The strategy Jeffrey outlined on Monday was dismantled two days later. Jeffrey said the Assad regime and Iran could not simply wait out the Americans. Now it seems they can.
The Turkey-PKK factor
It seems Trump took the decision to order the withdrawal after a telephone conversation on 14 December with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The content of the Trump-Erdogan conversation is not yet fully known. There has been speculation that Trump made concessions so the Turks would alleviate pressure on Saudi Arabia over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Whether Turkey’s recent decision to purchase a Patriot air defence system, possibly to replace the on-order Russian S-400, had any role in Trump’s decision, time may tell.
The most immediate consequences from Trump’s decision concern Turkey. The US’s use of the PKK against ISIS has brought the Turkey-PKK war into Syria. Earlier this month, Erdogan threatened to launch a third anti-PKK operation into Syria, this time in the areas east of the Euphrates River. Because those are the areas where the 2,000 (or 4,000) US soldiers are stationed, this had seemed unlikely.
Without the American shield, a Turkish offensive now looks much more probable. The flow of refugees and PKK operatives toward Iraq will be a serious challenge to the Iraqi Kurdistan government, a sworn foe of the PKK. The PKK will also reignite operations inside Turkey, particularly its urban terrorism in western Anatolia that was suspended for political reasons when the Americans were around.
Turkey is unlikely to intrude too deeply into Syria. The Turks will be looking for a buffer zone and to break up the PKK’s contiguous territory. The immediate political effect will be the PKK’s “reconciliation” with the Assad/Iran system.
The PKK functioned for many decades as a proxy of the Assad regime and has old relations with Iran and Russia, too. It has kept this option open during Syria’s war, while working through the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) front with the American-led anti-ISIS coalition. With the US out, the PKK will be folded back into the regime coalition, and the terms it will have to agree to in this situation will be harsh.
Assuming Turkey does not attack core PKK areas in Syria such as Kobani and Qamishli, and it has no reason to since the demographics would allow the PKK to wage a persistent insurgency, the Assad/Iran system might well leave the PKK—under supervision—to administer these areas. The Arab-majority zones the PKK captured, in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, as part of the anti-ISIS operation will revert fairly easily to regime control. Iran has proven adept at managing tribal politics in Syria, and in Deir Ezzor it has also engaged in proselytism dating back years before the revolution, creating constituencies that can be called on to help re-establish regime control.
Many Turks are, understandably, satisfied by the US decision and see it as the resetting of a strained relationship. There is truth to this, certainly politically. There will be difficulties for Turkey, namely controlling any territories it captures and dealing with the gains of the pro-Assad coalition in eastern Syria, a threat in two senses: in and of itself given how hostile Assad and Iran are to Turkey; and the cruelty and incompetence of the regime coalition will leave space for other threats like ISIS.
Abandoning the PKK in this precipitate way does nothing but harm to Western interests. Whatever one thought of the policy of working “by, with, and through” these former Soviet clients, building them up as an instrument with training, money, and heavy weapons, only to hand them to Iran is a dire mistake. If that was the course decided on, the PKK was at least owed a chance to negotiate with Damascus from a position of strength, rather than left to decide between total destruction by Turkey or Carthaginian terms with Assad and Iran. (It is said to be this letting down of a partner that was among the primary motives for Mattis’ resignation.) The next time the U.S. and its allies need a sub-state partner to achieve a foreign policy goal, it is difficult to see why anybody would volunteer after this outcome.
The Islamic State
ISIS is among the winners from the US withdrawal. The final pocket of the “caliphate” around Hajin, containing 2,000 to 8,000 jihadists, still stands. ISIS was able to launch a counter-attack from there on Monday. The PKK understandably tried to bargain completion of the Hajin operation in exchange for protection from Turkey. The U.S. rejected the PKK’s proposal. The PKK is now threatening to release thousands of foreign jihadists. The US is unlikely to yield and the PKK will shift its forces from fighting ISIS to preparing the Turkish frontier.
The PKK needed US air power at all times to roll back ISIS. The PKK’s governance structure is fragile; the pro-Assad forces that control the other territories taken from ISIS in the east are even more stretched and incapable. The US removal of everything leaves the area alarmingly vulnerable to an ISIS force that retains significant capacity. The loss of territory is a poor metric for ISIS’s strength. More important: its security institutions held intact. The transition to insurgency is already well-advanced: strong in Iraq and not-insignificant in Syria. In combination with the grotesque political maladies in both countries — from corruption to sectarianism — ISIS is a long, long way from being defeated.
Nor will ISIS be the only jihadi-Salafist group to gain from this. Al-Qaeda is well-positioned politically in Syria because of the West’s determined inaction in the face of mass-atrocities; it fought in the trenches with the rebellion when nobody else would. The de facto emirate the group and its allies hold in Idlib is trending toward consolidation. The US withdrawal after this botched campaign, perceived by many as anti-Sunni, furthers the narrative that the West supported Assad all along and Al-Qaeda is the only means of resistance.
The regime axis, the Gulf and Israel
Russia is obviously pleased the US is pulling out. Moscow’s primary goal since intervening has been to stabilise its client regime; the removal of the US, and the absorption of the PKK, make that task easier. As Yury Barmin has pointed out, however, the Russian victory is far from total. The Kremlin doesn’t trust that the US will leave, for a start. And the incentives created by the US vacuum weaken Russia even further in the internal struggle, to the extent there is one, with the more maximalist Assad/Iran position.
Overall, though, the Kremlin has made great strides in using its military successes to politically rehabilitate a blood-stained Assad. The international “peace process” was subverted, with increasing European buy-in, into a mechanism for reconfirming Assad in power even while the US remained in Syria. Ditto Arab allies reaching out to normalise Damascus. Once the regime has control of swathes of the territory evacuated by the US, with the natural resources and populations therein, it will give meaning to Assad’s claim of “victory” and the increasingly-repressive Arab states will bring him in from the cold with little trouble.
The expansion of Assad’s regime, of course, empowers Iran, which runs the security and other sectors. It is one of the great myths about Syria that the U.S. was determined to overthrow Assad; Obama wasn’t and nor is Trump. This has put very severe limits on what can be done to diminish Iran’s power in the Levant. Indeed, there is a case to say that without an explicit anti-Assad policy, resourced properly and appropriate risk accepted, having a few thousand US troops bivouacked on Syria’s periphery was pointless.
Nonetheless, Israel lobbied for the US to stay. The Israeli policy has been limited to engaging some rebels and airstrikes in Syria to interrupt weapons shipments to Hizballah in Lebanon, where the next crisis is visibly brewing, and to keep Iran off-balance. With the US absent, Israel might have to expand air attacks toward the border area in eastern Syria.
With Trump committed to withdrawing from Syria, a surrender in all-but-name is being prepared for Afghanistan even as Iran surges. This cringing posture extends even to the little things. A few rockets in September from Iranian proxies shut down the US consulate in Basra. While it is still possible to devise a containment policy against Iran, it is difficult to imagine it being effective and it certainly could no longer be called “maximum pressure”.
The anti-ISIS operation handed territory that had been captured from the rebellion to the PKK and now much of that territory will be given to the Assad/Iran system. If Western publics were told at the outset that a war would be waged to assist a man running death camps like Sednaya and to help the Iran-Russia axis expand its imperial holdings in the Middle East, it is conceivable they would have objected.
The current situation in Syria was far from inevitable, but it is the reality. There were reasoned arguments for and against maintaining a light footprint in eastern Syria; there is no argument for abandoning it this way. Yet if this withdrawal is anything, it is consistent with the rest of the US Syria policy: it has managed to be the worst of all possible worlds.