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Syria and the tragedy of American isolationism

When Turkey, Russia, and Iran praise American policy, we should be very worried

It should not have come as a complete surprise when President Trump tweeted on December 19 that the 2,000 US troops currently stationed in Syria would be withdrawn since their mission of defeating ISIS was virtually complete. Not only has he talked about the possibility before, but the pull-back from engagement with Syria echoes the policy of his predecessor, President Obama, who announced a “red line” should the Assad regime use chemical weapons against his foes, and then failed to enforce it.

What is noteworthy about Trump’s tweet is the support it has drawn, so far, from leaders of only three countries – Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Reportedly, it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who gave Trump the impetus for carrying out his idea for withdrawal during a phone conversation a few days earlier, promising that his troops would mop up the remaining ISIS fighters after the Americans left. And the day after the Trump tweet President Putin of Russia announced, “I do greatly agree with the President of the United States.” And finally, Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, commissioner of ground forces for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, welcomed the move as an admission of defeat, commenting: “The Americans have come to the conclusion that they can exercise power neither in Iraq and Syria nor in the entire region.”

These countries share three things in common: all are hostile to the United States, all are ruled by fiercely authoritarian leaders, and all are eager to expand their political, military, and economic influence in the Middle East. When they praise American policy, we should be concerned.

Over the roughly eight decades since the outbreak of World War II, American involvement on the world scene has been a force for regional and global stability. Of course, some US interventions were tragically mistaken, such as the war in Vietnam, and arguably, the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. But overall, robust American diplomatic efforts and, when necessary, military action or the threat of such action has not only saved the world from Nazism and Fascism, engineered the collapse of Communism, and provided the protection necessary for the growth and flourishing of the world’s democracies, but has also made the United States itself stronger and more secure.

Removal of American forces from Syria sends an ominous message, one only reinforced by the administration’s plan to withdraw half of the current 14,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan even as truce talks there proceed.

For the United States to step back from serious involvement abroad and, in the name of “America First,” approach every bilateral relationship in simple transactional terms with no larger purpose can only embolden aggressors. This was a lesson we learned in the 1930s, when American isolationism helped encourage expansionist dictatorships. This is true today in our relations with countries in many regions of the world. In the specific case of the Middle East, the absence of an American footprint opens the door to increased meddling by Russia, Iran, and Turkey – and hence the glee with which those governments, and no others, greeted President Trump’s announced troop withdrawal.

The consequences of an American exit from Syria are likely to be dire. ISIS, though deprived of territory, is far from dead, and the American policy shift may give it a new lease on life. More than 50,000 Syrians displaced from their homes by the civil war and living in refugee camps protected, up to now, by the Americans, will be defenseless against the Assad regime’s bloodthirsty forces. Taken by surprise by our President’s sudden tweet, the beleaguered troops we have been aiding in their long struggle against the Syrian regime will justifiably feel betrayed, especially the many Kurdish fighters among them. The Kurds, deprived of a homeland for centuries and constituting one of the few democratic and pluralistic societies in the region, will have to face Turkey’s relentlessly anti-Kurdish war machine alone. And the more than 70 nations that have been our coalition partners in the fight against ISIS will surely resent the lack of consultation, view America as reckless and unreliable, and look elsewhere when the next international crisis arises.

More broadly, America’s position on the global scene risks a serious blow from the Syrian withdrawal, coming as it does amid other signs of mounting US isolationism. The world could well become a more dangerous place as bad actors feel free to invade, kill, terrorize, and dismantle the democratic institutions and values in which we have invested so heavily through diplomacy, the military, and foreign assistance.

About the Author
Lawrence Grossman is Director of Publications for the American Jewish Committee.