On October 7th, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would pull its troops from Northern Syria. While this came as a surprise to many, it should not have. Donald Trump began his campaign criticizing the interventionist administrations preceding him, such as Bush Administration with Dick Cheney and the Obama administration with his opponent, Hillary Clinton. As the 2020 election crept closer, Trump needed legitimacy for his claims to be an isolationist (especially following the 2017 Syrian airstrikes and the increased rate of drone strikes under his presidency). While domestically useful, this move will push away critical allies and give ISIS what it needs to restart its caliphate.
At the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the Obama administration, as it had in Libya, provided weapons support to the opposition to counter both the Russia-supported Assad regime and ISIS, which harness the chaos of the war to create a caliphate. However, Assad intentionally released thousands of jihadists from high-security prisons to infiltrate these opposition groups, turning moderate rebel groups into fundamentalist organizations. After increased domestic pressure, the Obama administration turned to a new ally to fight ISIS — The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab alliance in the north of Syria.
Not only did these fighters prove effective, they also maintained a baseline of human rights not found in either the opposition groups or the regime. They accepted human rights training from the UN, respected minorities’ rights in northern Syria, and only moved families when they were in danger. However, by supporting the SDF, Obama played a very tough balancing act; The YPG, the Kurdish component of the SDF, maintains ties to the PKK, a Kurdish communist terrorist organization in Turkey. While Obama consistently appeased both the Kurds and Turkey, Turkey gradually drifted into Russia’s favor, as the Russians supported the anti-Kurdish Syrian government.
The US immediately lost both of these allies the minute US troops left Syria. The Kurds, abandoned by the US and in danger from Turkey, have struck a deal with Bashar Al-Assad’s government and Russia for protection against Turkey, and the economic sanctions against Turkey by the US, while lifted after the peace agreement, has further alienated Turkey. With two major allies abandoned, the US stands alone in the Middle East, with only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to work with.
This move by Trump did not only alienate these two US allies, though. It sent a message to US allies around the world: it only takes a minute’s notice for the US to abandon you for dead. The America that keeps its word on foreign policy died with this move. Future American leaders will find it difficult to strike deals when countries can point to this event and ask “Will this be us?”.
For example, Saudi Arabia saw the writing on the wall and began shifting away from the US after this indecent. Following the lackluster response from the US after drone strikes from Yemen destroyed Saudi oil fields, Mohammad Bin-Salman invited Putin, an ally of Iran (whom Saudi Arabia suspects commanded the strikes), to Riyadh in search of an ally who will consistently support them. Russia has also grown closer to Iraq in recent years, with Russian companies taking advantage of Iraqi oil reserves. Consequently, Putin now maintains friendly relations with almost every “US ally” in the Middle East, bar Israel, concerned about Russia’s ties to Iran and Hezbollah.
Additionally, with Turkey now free from American restraints, Erdogan’s ambitions for a greater Turkey are playing out. Currently, Turkey and Russia are collaborating on a nuclear power plant, the waste from which Turkey can construct nuclear warheads. Additionally, according to the New York Times, Turkey and a major black market nuclear arms dealer Abdul Qadeer Khan maintain close ties, hinting at a nuclear Turkey in the near future. Without the limitations from NATO and the US, this could be a reality very soon.
A New Syria
The political situation of Syria could completely change in the coming months. With the Assad Regime and the Kurds aligned (for now), Syria finds itself closer than ever to unification. However, a shadow of a resurgent ISIS looms on the horizon after the abandonment of prisons in the Turkish buffer zone.
After the US withdrawal, the balance of power shifted in Syria shifted greatly towards the Assad regime. Now that the Kurds rely on him for protection against Turkey, he can impose a military rule in Northern Syria not seen since 2011. He might be defending them now, but in a year his attitude will likely change as he avenges troops lost to the SDF. Additionally, Rojava’s vision for a united Kurdistan no longer exists. However, it could achieve some semblance of autonomy, if Rojava plays its cards right with Assad.
The US withdrawal also sparked a resurgence of ISIS, which lost the last of its territory in March of 2019. As Kurdish soldiers fled the front lines, prison camps became abandoned, a green light for their extremist prisoners to escape. According to The Guardian, 750 people with links to ISIS escaped the Ain Issa prison camp amidst a battle with Turkish forces, and 3 major prison camps for ISIS fighters lie in the proposed buffer zone. Additionally, many of the fighters supported by Turkey against the SDF and Syria are Islamic extremists, and Turkey even recruited ex-ISIS fighters to their army against the Kurds. Now that the US is no longer monitoring the situation on the ground, the fighters Turkey utilizes could establish a resurgent ISIS.
Donald Trump and following US presidents must play their cards very carefully if they are to ever rebuild their influence in the Middle East. Primarily, the US must re-establish ties with Kurdish fighters in Syria to show that the US has not forgotten them, limiting the risk of them turning violent against the US. Videos of Kurdish protesters throwing tomatoes at exiting US videos will be child's play compared to what could potentially happen.
Secondly, the US must recommit itself to supporting Iraq and Israel, our last two allies with clean(ish) records and trends towards democracy. This will show our existing allies worldwide that this fluke will only happen once. Finally, the mechanisms behind foreign policy must shift towards State Department officials rather than hunches from one man. The State Department exists as a method of carefully executing a consistent foreign policy after weighing the consequences of major decisions. Obviously, the Trump administration could use that right about now. If these three goals are met, then US influence in the Middle East could be restored. Otherwise, only time will tell the long-term consequences of this rash decision.