President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement Wednesday that he is removing U.S. forces from Syria shocked many. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because the move is consistent with key aspects of Trump’s military and foreign policy.
Trump promised to bring the 2,000 U.S. Special Forces home from Syria in April. When his announcement sparked opposition from the Pentagon and from key allies, Trump said that he would give the Pentagon six months to complete its mission to defeat so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) forces in Syria.
Seven months later, he announced the troops will be coming home.
Trump’s decision will have negative consequences. But it will also have positive consequences. Only time will tell if the positive implications of the move will outweigh the negative ones. But it is important to set out both to consider the wisdom of his decision.
On the negative side, the most immediate casualties of Trump’s decision are the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. The YPG has been America’s partner and its ground force in the U.S.-led campaign against IS in Syria. YPG forces are the only forces on the ground in Syria that are loyal to the U.S.
At the same time, the U.S. partnership with the YPG has raised the prospect of a war between the U.S. and Turkey. Turkish dictator Recip Erdogan. Erdogan threatened last week to launch an offensive against the YPG forces. He spoke to Trump on Monday. Trump reportedly decided to announce the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria on Tuesday.
Also during the course of their discussion, Erdogan reportedly agreed to cancel his order of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system and to purchase a package of U.S. Patriot missile systems valued at $3.5 billion instead.
Turkey’s planned purchase of the S-400 caused a rift between NATO member Turkey and NATO. The S-400 is not interoperational with NATO systems. Turkish use of the system could endanger the American F-35’s stealth systems.
In announcing the departure of U.S. forces, Trump essentially told the Kurds that they are on their own. Unless the U.S. agrees to arm and supply YPG forces, and unless the U.S. intends to use other means to deter Erdogan from attacking them, Syria’s Kurds will face the unenviable choice between facing the Turks alone or throwing their hats in with the Russians and Iranians in the hopes of receiving some sort of protection from the Turks.
Despite their relatively small numbers, the U.S. forces in Syria have had a massive strategic impact on the power balance in the country. Deployed along the border triangle joining Syria, Iraq and Jordan, the U.S. forces in Syria have blocked Iran taking over the Iraqi-Syria border and so forging a land bridge linking Iran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
U.S. forces at the border have also prevented Iranian-controlled forces from attacking Jordan.
Then there is Russia. Last January, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad concluded a deal that gave Russia control over Syria’s oil and gas. The following month, Russian mercenaries attempted to cross the Euphrates River to seize the Conoco oil field. The area is under YPG control. Forty U.S. forces blocked the Russian offensive. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed.
Last month, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned an Iranian-Russia network that sent millions of barrels of Iranian oil to Syria and hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas and Hezbollah. The purpose of the network was to permit Iran to bypass the U.S. sanctions by passing its oil off as Syrian oil.
Apparently in response to America’s move, Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft cancelleda $30 billion deal to develop oil and gas projects in Iran. And so on the face of it, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria gives Russia and Iran an open road to bypass U.S. sanctions.
But with the EU still embargoing Syrian oil, Russia and Iran have limited options for selling their supplies. Moreover, according to Oil Price, Syria’s oilfields and infrastructure were destroyed during the war. To bring the fields back to pre-war production levels, Russia will need to invest $35-40 billion. With oil selling for $46 per barrel, it isn’t clear whether Russia has the funds to rebuild Syria’s oil industry. At a minimum, it will be difficult for Russia to cash in on its investment in Syria even after the U.S. forces leave. The fact that most of Syria’s fields are in territory under Kurdish control gives the YPG a significant bargaining chip in its dealings with the Russians. Russia does not want those fields to fall to Turkish control.
From Israel’s perspective, the U.S. presence in Syria has served as a key deterrent against Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah aggression. The thought that U.S. forces in Syria will fight with Israel if Israel finds itself at war against Iran and its aligned forces in Syria and Lebanon has been a deterrent to Iranian aggression. It has arguably also been a rationale for Russia limiting the scope of its strategic partnership with Iran in Syria.
Trump’s announcement that he is removing U.S. forces from Syria, consequently, increases the likelihood of war just as Iran’s pending seizure of the Syrian-Iraqi border increases the likelihood of war.
That means it increases the likelihood that Israel will find itself under attack and at war with Iran and its proxies in both Lebanon and Syria.
But that, then, brings us to the positive implications of Trump’s move.
From a U.S. perspective, it is fairly clear that if a full-blown war erupts between Israel and Iran-Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria will not be sufficient to make a significant contribution to their defeat. Instead the forces are liable to serve as a tripwire which could place pressure on Trump to deploy a much larger force to Syria.
Presuming that Trump has no interest in being sucked into a war that would place the U.S. in direct conflict with Russia, keeping the forces on the ground is problematic.
U.S. forces were first deployed to Syria in 2014 to wage a campaign to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As Middle East expert Lee Smith noted in an article in Tablet magazine in April, Obama’s decision to deploy U.S. forces to Syria was of a piece with his larger strategic realignment of the U.S away from Israel and its traditional Sunni Arab allies and towards Iran.
Since ISIS is a Sunni terror group, it was largely assumed that Iran and ISIS were enemies. This despite the fact that Iran and ISIS had a live-and-let-live relationship in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, Iran has a documented record of supporting ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.
All the same, in deploying U.S. forces to Syria to fight IS, Obama believed he was advancing his strategic realignment in two ways. First, he strengthened Iran’s position in Syria by weakening a rival for power. In so doing, he advanced his goal of convincing the Iranian regime to conclude the nuclear deal with his administration. As Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told a group of activists in 2014, Obama viewed his realignment towards Iran as the most important policy of his second term in office.
The second goal Obama sought to achieve through the deployment to Syria was one directed towards domestic opinion. Obama sought to use the deployment in Syria and Iraq against ISIS – in coordination and cooperation with Iran – to convince the American public that Iran was no longer their enemy.
When Trump came into office, he continued to implement Obama’s policy. He did not ask for an expanded mandate for U.S. forces in Syria. This despite the fact that National Security Advisor John Bolton told Breitbart News in August that the writ of U.S. forces in Syria had been expanded to containing Iran and blocking Iran from seizing control over the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Pentagon, for its part, insisted on maintaining the Obama administration’s pro-Iran policy and rejected attempts to abandon it in favor of an anti-Iran policy in Syria.
The same has held in Lebanon. Despite voluminous evidence that Hezbollah controls both the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the Pentagon has resisted any attempt to end U.S. support for the LAF and the Lebanese government. And so, for the past two years, the Trump administration has continued to fund and train the LAF and to support the Lebanese government. In a sign of just how intertwined Hezbollah and LAF forces have become, Israel’s Hadashot news channel reported Wednesday that LAF and Hezbollah forces conduct joint patrols along the Lebanese border with Israel.
One of the consequences of the U.S. pullout from Syria is that Trump will finally abandon Obama’s pro-Iranian policy in Syria. True, he isn’t replacing it with an anti-Iranian policy in Syria. But all the same, by abandoning a pro-Iranian policy in Syria, the move will lend some coherence to the U.S.’s overall strategy for countering Iran’s growing power and influence in the region and worldwide.
Israel’s Hadashot news channel reported on Wednesday that along with Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria, U.S. officials told Israel that if Hezbollah gains a more powerful position in the next Lebanese government, the U.S. will end its support for the LAF and agree to Israel’s request that it place an economic embargo on the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah announced its intention to take control over Lebanon’s health ministry shortly after the elections in May. The ministry has one of the largest budgets and plenty of disposable cash. The U.S. had already warned Lebanese President Michel Aoun that it would end its support for Lebanon if Hezbollah receives the health ministry.
On Thursday, it was reported that Hezbollah loyalist Jamil Jabak will serve as Lebanese health minister in the next government. If the U.S. follows through on its promise to end its support for Lebanon as a result, then the Trump administration will entirely abandon Obama’s pro-Iranian policy in the Middle East.
From Israel’s perspective, continued U.S. support for the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government and military has been a major concern. In 2006, due the Bush administration’s support for the Lebanese government, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prohibited Israel from targeting Lebanese infrastructures and other resources critical to Hezbollah’s war effort. If the U.S. is true to its word and aligns its policy towards Lebanon with Israel, the move will vastly expand Israel’s ability to decisively defeat Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon, in the next war.
Commenting Thursday morning about Trump’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We will continue to act in Syria to prevent Iran’s effort to militarily entrench itself against us. We are not reducing our efforts, we will increase our efforts.”
Netanyahu added, “I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the U.S.”
Time will tell whether Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria was a prelude to disaster for U.S. allies and a boon for America’s enemies, or whether the opposite is the case. But what is clear enough is that move is not entirely negative.