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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 April 2019

Analysis: With Syria exit, Trump places Kurds in no man's land

After almost two years, the US president's Middle East policy is looking a lot like his predecessor's

A convoy of US armoured vehicles in northern Syria. AFP
A convoy of US armoured vehicles in northern Syria. AFP

It is clear to anyone who follows Donald Trump's presidency that a pattern has emerged when it comes to the treatment of those who advise him. Sooner or later, all counsel is disregarded. What matters more are Mr Trump's personal beliefs. Syria is the latest example of such decision making.

In announcing a withdrawal of 2,000 American troops, Mr Trump undermined senior figures in his administration. An atmosphere of near hallucinatory awkwardness pervaded the Pentagon when a defence official greeted the Syria announcement on Wednesday by saying that as far as she was aware there had been no policy change.

Such is the Trump playbook – decisions often seem too abrupt or contradictory to be believed even among those left to put US policy into effect. Having at least once before been talked out of a Syria pullout, the president's long-held antipathy to US involvement in foreign wars has a few months later outweighed all other considerations.

Among those whose recent statements on Syria have effectively been rubbed out are two vastly contrasting senior Trump administration officials – National Security Adviser John Bolton and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk.

Mr Bolton, a foreign policy hawk, has for months been telling people that the US would keep troops in Syria as a means to limit Iran's capacity there. The same policy would blunt Russia's expansion in the Middle East, he told the president. Mr McGurk, a more measured character and a rare survivor from President Barack Obama's second administration, trod more carefully, largely steering clear of politics. As a career diplomat he spent the past three years dealing with Iraq and Syria, making numerous trips there. Mr McGurk knows what he is talking about. In a briefing to the media on December 11 he was at pains to say that although ISIS had lost almost all its territory, it would take an American presence lasting years to stabilise Syria and Iraq, and blunt the threat of a renewed insurgency.

“Even as the end of the physical caliphate is coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” Mr McGurk said at the State Department. “Nobody working on these issues day to day is complacent. Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.”

Such is the contrast between those working on policy and Mr Trump. With one tweet that said ISIS had been defeated, the president signalled that he does not believe in the long-term approach. Much like his firing of top officials, Mr Trump's foreign policy appears confined to his own opinion, invariably conveyed not in Cabinet or private but in real time by tweet.

The implications in Syria will be both immediate and long lasting. Russia, Iran and Turkey already have a political alliance. All three are now free to compete for territorial influence and strike deals among themselves. The first impact will be on the Kurdish forces that have been working with American troops against ISIS.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers many of those Kurds to be terrorists. He wants them wiped off the map. With no US troops to get caught up in the fighting, a second ground incursion to rival that undertaken in northern Syria earlier this year becomes easier. President Trump, at least implicitly, has approved it. The smiling faces of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers holding hands on Tuesday at talks in Geneva about a new Syrian constitution – a notional addendum to a war that has killed around half a million people – now seem more sinister.

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Iran, countering Mr Bolton's aims, will be emboldened and can maintain an unimpeded land bridge to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. Despite Mr Trump's bombast against Iran, clerics in Tehran and generals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – after Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria – will delight at another withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East.

After months of ramping up tensions with Turkey, Mr Trump also pleased Mr Erdogan. Was the US president's decision a quid pro quo for the US approving a $3.5-billion Patriot missile defence system sale to Turkey? The deal was announced hours after the US pullout from Syria, ending Mr Erdogan's threats to hand such a deal to Russia instead.

That is unlikely to bother President Vladimir Putin much. Russia stands to gain from the US withdrawal more than anyone else. With Syrian President Bashar Al Assad destined to remain in power, Mr Putin can squeeze Damascus for concessions for years to come.

Besides having a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the money from the eventual reconstruction of Syria will be one prize for Russia after a conflict in which America has become irrelevant. Just as the US fell out of the diplomatic process over Syria's future, it is now withdrawing from the field. And with claims of collusion in the 2016 presidential election yet to be dismissed, it is another Trump decision that seems favourable to Russia.

The Syria pullout also has dark parallels with past US policy, namely the abandonment of Kurds. That first happened after the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The softening of policy on Syria left many Kurds thinking it was only a matter of time until history repeated itself. They have been proved right.

It may not bother him but Mr Trump also risks a similar unfavourable judgment as that directed at his predecessor. Mr Obama's decision to pull out troops sent to Iraq by George W. Bush was criticised by many as premature. It was Mr Obama who sent the US special forces to Syria that Mr Trump has now vowed to bring home.

“This underscores the many similarities in Obama and Trump Mideast policies,” Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told The National. “This smacks of Iraq 2011/2012.”

Updated: December 20, 2018 03:44 PM

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