Over the past couple of days, U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement to withdraw U.S. personnel from Syria has generated debates as to which rival power received the biggest Christmas gift. While Russia, Iran and the Assad regime all benefit in the long run, Turkey seems to be the immediate winner. The big losers are every ally and every cause the United States has ever supported, including the State of Israel.
By pulling out U.S. troops from northwestern Syria, Trump is clearing the way for Turkey to bomb the Kurdish YPG forces who have turned the tide against Islamic State (IS). Turkey claims that YPG is connected to PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group active against Turkey.
Earlier this month, Turkey announced it would begin air strikes against YPG positions, where many of the 2,000 U.S. and other NATO personnel are also present. Since Turkish bombs on NATO partners would be inconceivable – and since Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erodgan would not back off the Khashoggi affair without something in return – one side or the other had to give. In this case, it was President Trump who caved.
Yes, Trump is unusually protective of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is implicated in last October’s brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate. But Erdogan deserves credit for using this affair to embarrass Riyadh and to threaten various U.S. interests; getting his way with YPG is just one prize for his troubles.
Last week, outraged by the Khashoggi attack and cover-up, the U.S. Senate voted to cease U.S. support for the murderous Saudi war in Yemen. And now Trump has given Erdogan the “all clear” to decimate YPG in Syria. Also, by effectively ceding any superpower role there to Russia, Trump’s capitulation will hopefully “stabilize” the situation and provide some relief for Syrian refugees huddled along and inside the Turkish border.
There’s never just one explanation for power plays or for capitulations, of course, especially those involving the Middle East. Within an same hour of the withdrawal announcement, the Trump administration approved Turkey’s purchase of a $3.5 billion Patriot defensive missile system. Erdogan had been angling for the Russian S-400 system, and the Patriot deal keeps Turkey’s military – and its cash – within a NATO environment.
Back to the long term, with any Syrian opposition now eliminated or soon to be bombed out of existence, Russia need no longer worry about losing its client Bashar Assad in Damascus and its strategic access to the Mediterranean. Any international negotiations over Syria’s future will find Washington and NATO holding few cards and without credibility to challenge this status quo.
Iran has virtually unrestricted run of Syria and, by extension, of Lebanon. It can threaten or attack Israel from its strongest position ever, using its own personnel as well as its Hezbollah proxies. Since Trump’s ditching the Iran nuclear deal has weakened the position of more moderate voices within the Tehran hierarchy, any restrictions on Revolutionary Guard units are wearing very thin.
On a much wider scale, Trump’s announcement affects U.S. allies and potential allies around the Middle East and beyond.
Credibility can be hard to build and easy to squander. Coming out of World War II, the United States had lots of it. Even against the backdrop of America’s Vietnam quagmire, Israel’s 1967 lightning victory over the Soviet-backed Arab armies established the United States as the undisputed superpower patron. The Soviet collapse and victory in Kuwait consolidated that status.
Since the Iraq invasion, U.S. resolve and legitimacy have been under a growing question mark. By abandoning its Kurdish allies in their fight against remaining IS holdouts and exiting Syria with no agreement on Iran’s presence or on Syria’s future, the United States sends a series of dangerous messages.
To Iran: Trump’s commitment to Israel’s security or to other allies in the region – perhaps even to Saudi Arabia, and definitely to Iraq – is negotiable or subject to Oval Office whim. And rather than backing up Israel’s deterrent strength, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was fulfilling a New Testament prophecy at the expense of regional stability and potential peace efforts.
To Russia: More than merely ceding Syria and Lebanon, it tells Vladimir Putin that Washington can shirk any NATO effort to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and freedom of navigation, including in Crimea and the newly conflicted Sea of Azov. By backing down to a regional power like Turkey, Trump has reassured Putin he can be out-blinked on nuclear deals, Baltic intervention, Arctic Sea channels, trade talks, and sanctions for Kremlin manipulation of U.S. politics.
If there is no honor or reward in standing with America, now or 40 years from now, then who will do so and who will worry about crossing U.S. interests and allies? In almost the same breath as he announced the withdrawal from Syria, President Trump also moved to deport thousands of Vietnamese, who had to seek refuge here after they took America’s side in the early 1970s.
And a day after announcing the Syria withdrawal, Trump announced the drawing down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan – just weeks before crucial negotiations over that country’s future.
These messages are not good for Israel or the Saudis as they contemplate Iran and other threats. An America without resolve or credibility is of little use to Israel, no matter how many weapons systems it provides.
After meeting Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time after Netanyahu became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1996, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton incredulously asked, “Who is the f***ing superpower here??” To President Trump, superpower priorities don’t even seem to matter.
Although U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation letter is unprecedented and especially damning, his points about standing with allies and standing up to adversaries are generally self-evident. The lessons being learned are especially serious for U.S. grand strategy, which is premised on the recruiting and retaining of loyal allies around the world. Fickle followers are enough of a challenge, without a capricious leader – which is no leader at all.
Without U.S. investment in the Syria outcome, French President Emmanuel Macron – who faces widespread domestic protests and riots – just got ditched by the U.S. President in Syria, France’s historical sphere of influence. The Saudis – whom Trump presumably sought to help – now face an emboldened Iran and a validated Turkey, and a total failure of their Syria strategy. And so on.
Netanyahu, who has tethered himself to America’s Republican Party and now to President Trump, is scrambling to explain how his ace in the hole just handed Iran the keys to Syria – just as he’s facing the prospect of corruption charges. And, because he couldn’t bear Trump freezing the anti-Iran sanctions, Netanyahu nixed a Russian deal for a parallel U.S. and Iranian withdrawal from Syria. So now Iran gets to stay on indefinitely, with no U.S. presence.
Putin and a few other tacticians have managed to work Trump’s randomness to their advantage. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was one of the first to leverage this new arbitrary ethos without relinquishing any substantive concessions. Erdogan, who faced numerous challenges in Syria, is now preparing to send his air force on a victory lap against the YPG. If leaders in Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, Latin America and the Middle East – including Netanyahu – can also figure out how to play to this impulsive and compromised new emperor, they might at least manage to limit their losses.