Trump’s U-turn on Syria is a victory for sanity and common sense
The president's pattern of creating crises and demanding credit for stepping back from the brink is deeply troubling
In the most significant foreign policy reversal of his presidency, Donald Trump has agreed to keep at least 400 US troops in Syria. It’s a victory for sanity and sense in an administration that often seems driven by impulse and gives unquestioned primacy to politics over policy.
Mr Trump shocked the world when he announced via Twitter on December 19 that he was withdrawing all US forces from Syria immediately. His decision was so inexplicably wrongheaded that I, in these pages at the time, emphasised that the blunder could and must be reversed. And now Mr Trump is back-pedalling although as always, he denies he is doing so.
There was near-unanimous opposition from his officials, Congress (except for the isolationist right and the anti-interventionist left), the mainstream US media and America’s closest Middle East partners, including both Israel and Gulf Arab countries.
The US’s local Kurdish and Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces, who did the bulk of the battlefield fighting against ISIS, were betrayed, abandoned and set up for a potential Turkish onslaught that could have degenerated into a massacre.
But Mr Trump’s nativist base seemed pleased. And given the quagmires that followed some recent US overseas adventures, it is appropriate to examine the cost-benefit ratio.
In the 1990-1991 liberation of Kuwait, for example, that balance appears satisfactory. But in others, most notably the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs seem exorbitant and the benefits questionable at best.
Still, it’s hard to imagine more “bang for your buck” than the extremely limited but impressively effective US engagement in Syria.
Deployments rarely exceeded 2,000 US troops and a total of seven have died. Under the Trump administration, US activities in Syria were financially underwritten by allies. There’s an extraordinarily impressive return on 2,000 troops deployed and little ongoing expenditure.
Mr Trump very reasonably insists his two biggest Middle East policy goals are combating terrorist groups and countering Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. And Syria has been the epicentre of both menaces in recent years.
In the battle against terrorism, this modest US military engagement was vital in the defeat of the so-called ISIS caliphate in Syria and drove the extremists back into the shadows.
It’s hard to imagine more 'bang for your buck' than the extremely limited but impressively effective US engagement in Syria
Regarding Iran, US support for the SDF left Washington in de facto control of strategically vital but sparsely populated chunks of northern and eastern Syria and, therefore, positioned the US to be part of the political resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Most importantly, the American base at Al Tanf, manned by about 200 US personnel, has effectively blocked Iran from creating a secure military corridor through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and down to the Mediterranean coast.
Similarly, US and allied forces are a major part of the ongoing struggle for another less ideal but potentially usable Iranian military crossing point, Abu Kamal. In short, this small contingent of Americans and local allies are effectively blocking Iran from securing its most significant geostrategic acquisition in the last 40, if not 400, years. And clearly a Syrian landscape without an American presence and with the SDF abandoned and in disarray would be much more firmly in the grip of the Assad regime, Russia, Hezbollah and especially Iran.
The US once again has leverage and breathing room. It needs to use them to continue to block Tehran’s expansion, support Arab re-engagement with the Syrian regime and back Israel’s “red lines” regarding Iranian and Hezbollah activities in the southwest.
Washington should attempt to broker a reasonable territorial and political arrangement between the SDF forces and the Damascus government, also insured by Russia, that so far as possible isolates Iran and restrains Turkey.
The US can now also once again induce European powers to contribute their own forces, which they refused to do if all Americans were leaving.
Washington’s long-term goal must be to work with other powers, especially Russia, to ensure that Iran is not allowed to emerge as the big winner from the Syrian conflict.
Had all US troops left Syria shortly, such an outcome was exceedingly likely.
It’s typical of the US president. With a single tweet, he initiated a major crisis and is now demanding – and getting – effusive praise for backing away from an incalculable blunder. It’s eerily reminiscent of his infantile war of words with Kim Jong-un, which spawned fears of a US-North Korean war, and his subsequent plea for a Nobel Peace Prize for defusing the very conflict he conjured. He even boasts that without him, the US and North Korea would have gone to nuclear war.
Everyone is right to be relieved. But the cost of all this tomfoolery is enormous. This administration cannot afford to lose such rare, outstanding officials as former defence secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, former special envoy to the global coalition against ISIS, who both resigned on principle after Mr Trump’s Syria decision.
Allies remain deeply troubled, while Iran claims vindication in painting the US as feckless and unreliable.
There’s reason to think this pattern of creating a crisis out of nothing and then demanding credit for stepping back from the brink will continue because Mr Trump finds it politically expedient. But one day, his luck and ours will run out.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: February 25, 2019 06:51 PM