It’s an early Christmas gift for Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State.
President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw all American troops from Syria has left U.S. diplomats baffled, their Kurdish allies angry, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad and Islamic State elated.
“We’ve won against ISIS,” Trump declared in a video posted on Wednesday.
“We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
About 2,000 U.S. troops have been stationed in Syria, largely in its northern Kurdish region. Trump said they will be removed within the next 30 days.
The news shocked his own Republican party, partly because the country’s own special envoy to the global coalition to defeat Islamic State told reporters last week that a total U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be “reckless.” It’s no wonder Trump’s defence secretary, Jim Mattis — who has reportedly been trying to convince Trump for weeks to reverse course — submitted his resignation letter a day after Trump declared the withdrawal. There isn’t much point sticking around if your boss is ignoring you.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led alliance, feels betrayed because of the major role they have played in eliminating Islamic State after it overran large swathes of Syria four years ago. Withdrawing U.S. troops will lead only to a resurgence of Islamic State, they said in a statement after Trump’s announcement.
According to Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, the Syrian Democratic Force are now considering releasing more than 3,000 Islamic State prisoners. From this perspective, things are looking pretty rosy for the heinous terrorist group.
The geopolitical implications of Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops will be incessantly scrutinized over the next few days: how it leaves the door open for Turkey to target the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters it regards as terrorists; how dubious Trump’s claim of having defeated Islamic State is, considering the real threat it continues to pose; how the political divide in Trump’s own party just keeps getting wider and wider, especially in the aftermath of Mattis’s resignation.
What will be less discussed are the people of Syria, those bearing the brunt of a continually skewed and reckless foreign policy by both Western and Eastern powers.
“The civil war in Syria has been one of the most internationalized conflicts in the world after Yemen,” says Shamiran Mako, a professor of international relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
“That’s not entirely the fault of American disengagement. From the onset, there were multiple actors involved — domestically, regionally and internationally.... It became very complex very quickly, as most civil wars do. An impediment for American engagement has been identifying who ‘the good and bad rebels’ are.”
Nothing reflects the chilling humanitarian toll better than the numbers: more than 465,000 Syrians dead, over a million injured, and over 12 million — half the country’s prewar population — displaced.
And while no one can claim that U.S. policy on Syria was more effective under the Obama administration, humanitarian aid, at least, continued. That support has dropped since Trump came to power, most sharply over the last year.
“Prior to the uprisings, aid in 2009 and 2010 fluctuated between $19 and $22 million” for Syria, says Mako. “It rose sharply with American engagement in the conflict, rising to $914 million in 2015, $916 million in 2016, and $891 million in 2017 of total USAID obligations. And in 2018, it drops to $193 million.
“You have this drastic disengagement that has come to exemplify Trump’s foreign policy — both on the political and military side.”
It’s clear Trump has no commitment to resolving the core humanitarian issues that are facing Syrians. While that is not surprising — he’s always been clear he wanted to pursue a policy of disengagement — the way he’s doing it screams of recklessness and hypocrisy.
As someone who once said the Middle East was “a total and complete mess” and wished America “had the four or five trillion dollars that we have spent [there], and had spent it in the United States,” why does he continue to support the bloody Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and spend billions in military aid to Israel — more than any other state?
It’s a thought process (“strategy” is too generous of a word) that’s as inhumane as it is defeatist. Because with every rash and unilateral move he makes, the U.S. is plunging the Middle East into deeper, intractable conflict — and no one living in the West will be immune from the consequences.