President Donald Trump seems to have a favorite kind of crisis: one of his own making. His decision on Thursday to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria is evidence of that. With one stroke of a pen, he infuriated members of his own administration—resulting in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s resignation—and left the anti-ISIS coalition wondering what comes next.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly stated his intentions to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. And as recently as April, he argued that “sometimes it’s time to come back home. And we’re thinking about that very seriously now.” The policy change is in line with a worldview Trump has championed since his political rise: America shouldn’t continue spending trillions of dollars on other people’s wars overseas. While that may appeal to his rabid America-First base, he’s likely seeking another outcome with this decision.
By leaving Syria now, Trump is creating a vacuum that is sure to be filled by Russia, cementing a win for Russian President Vladimir Putin, which will allow the two to develop even stronger ties. Putin, for his part, has already rejoiced over the move. What’s more, Trump’s decision will also ingratiate him to another autocrat: Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who’s military will have free rein in his battle against the Kurds in northern Syria.
American troops have been in Syria since 2014, when the Obama administration decided to help lead the military campaign against ISIS. Those efforts have largely been successful. When the efforts began, ISIS held most of northeastern Syria and Iraq. Today, it controls only 200 square miles of territory in Syria. The U.S. ground support, which consists of around 2,000 soldiers, has been critical to maintaining whatever equilibrium is possible in the beleaguered country, with Bashar al-Assad’s regime controlling the south and Turkey’s forces to the north.
On the political level, Trump’s pullout leaves the U.S. with very little leverage to bring to any future peace talks. It marks an abandonment of America’s allies on the ground and a reversal of its stated policy initiatives, like completely defeating ISIS and containing Iran-backed militias throughout the Middle East.
Trump’s decision seems largely—at least in the immediate term—based on a rough cost-benefit analysis to secure his campaign promise to leave Syria and strengthen his ties with Russia and Turkey. From this point of view, it’s easy to see Syria as a losing battle—it’s costing taxpayer money and committing the U.S. to another open-ended conflict in the region—but leaving now resolves nothing. Trump’s decision, instead, enables Russia’s and Turkey’s objectives, and proves that he prioritizes cultivating relationships with strongmen like Putin and Erdogan over following through with his own administration’s stated policy objectives.
The U.S. withdrawal from Syria further consolidates Russia’s leadership position in the Middle East. America’s absence will now give Russia the legitimacy to head-up talks for a political settlement. President Putin has unsurprisingly praised the decision as “correct.” No wonder. This further solidifies Russia’s political gains in Syria, as a major backer of Assad, and removes a major threat to Assad’s grip on power. Russia has essentially been handed the role of winding down the Syria crisis on its own terms.
According to the Associated Press, Trump’s decision was largely motivated by a December 14 conference call between him and Erdogan, in which the Turkish President reportedly challenged Trump to defend America’s continued presence in Syria, citing the Islamic State’s drastic loss in territory. When Trump offered to pull out, Erdogan “cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal,” citing Turkey’s limited ability to mobilize sufficient forces to protect its border.
This withdrawal also comes on the heels of Turkey’s decision to purchase Patriot missiles from the U.S. when it had been contemplating buying a competing Russian system. The State Department announced its approval of the sale on December 18, just a day before Trump announced the change in his Syria policy.
On the ground, the withdrawal offers an incredible concession to Turkey. Erdogan, anxious about the presence of Kurdish troops in Syria’s northeast, has threatened a possible military offensive. Just days before the announcement, U.S. Syria Envoy Jim Jeffrey clarified that America’s partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish-led militia, was goal-specific to fighting ISIS. He also encouraged the Syrian Kurds to join the “fabric of a changed Syrian society,” effectively dashing hopes of Kurdish autonomy or statehood.
The administration has made its point clear: it’s more concerned with improving relations with Russia and Turkey than with improving the security of Syria and America’s allies fighting there. But the consequences of the withdrawal have far deeper immediate impacts. It will, in fact, hurt America’s core security objectives in the region, i.e. containing the threat from Iran, which is allied with Assad and trying to create a permanent military presence in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria will create major power vacuum in the Middle East—one that extremist groups like the ISIS are destined to exploit.
ISIS will surely look to consolidate its holds and frame this as a victory against the West. Russia, already a strong military presence and political backer, will take advantage of this situation. Although Turkey has delayed an anticipated military operation in northeast Syria, it still has the opportunity to attack the Kurdish forces operating there in the future.
As Trump drifts further away from European allies and invests more in his relationships with Erdogan and Putin, the impetus is placed on other countries to commit resources to the military efforts to stabilize Syria to whatever extent is possible
ISIS may have been severely weakened, but it is not totally defeated. With the U.S. leaving Syria, it will prop up the very forces that need to be suppressed. That will lead to the expansion of extremists and the increased influence of malign actors like Assad, Russia, and Iran, making an already chaotic situation even more fraught. The withdrawal of American troops will ultimately lead to the exact outcome American policymakers have spent years trying to avoid.