Analysis FAES Shifting sands: Trump in Syria

Javier Gil Guerrero is professor of International Relations at the Francisco de Vitoria University


Like many other measures taken by Trump, the deliberation process that led the US president to opt on 19 December for the withdrawal of the small US contingent operating east of the Euphrates River in Syria is still unknown.

The most surprising aspect is the apparent context of the decision-making moment: in the course of a conversation with Turkish President Erdogan. The announcement came only a few weeks after his Secretary of State Pompeo and his National Security Advisor Bolton had declared their intention to maintain the troops in Syria in order to wipe out the remnants of the Islamic state, support the Kurdish and Arab allies and prevent a consolidation of Iranian power in the country. The withdrawal was also apparently decided by Trump without proper consultation with the Pentagon and with the opposition of his Secretary of Defense Mattis, who announced his resignation the following day.

To add to the confusion, Trump decided to send Bolton and Pompeo to the Middle East on a tour that would reassure the American allies in the region. The message from both was clear: the United States is not withdrawing from the Middle East and will continue to operate in Syria and other countries. In the case of Bolton, he went so far as to qualify Trump's announcement from Israel, stating that it would not be a rapid withdrawal and that it would be conditional on the protection of the Kurdish allied forces in Syria. However, they had barely uttered these words when, on 11 January 2019, it was confirmed that the withdrawal process had already begun. Finally, and despite the fact that Trump had justified the end of the military presence in the victory over the Islamic State, on 16 January an attack killed two American soldiers and two civilians in Syria (a remarkable fact considering that between 2015 and 2019 the Islamic State had only managed to kill two Americans in Syria).

What can we deduce about all this?
First of all, we just have to pay attention to Trump. He is a president who follows his instincts and keeps his campaign promises. Although all his advisers had been ensuring a military presence in Syria for months, Trump, in his few references to the subject, had always insisted on the need to leave Syria as soon as possible. On the other hand, during the election campaign he always repeated that Washington could not continue to waste money and resources in the Middle East exclusively protecting the interests of its allies in the region. On this last point, there is more than remarkable continuity between Obama and Trump. Both view US involvement in the Middle East with great skepticism and defend a strategic reorientation towards the real medium- and long-term challenge: the Pacific (i.e. China).

How is it possible that two "hawks" like Pompeo and Bolton commune with a Syrian withdrawal similar to the one they criticized from Obama in Iraq in 2011? Why do they apparently gently accept Trump's deauthorizations of his speeches? In the face of this, one can only speculate. What I would venture to say is that for both the priority is regime change in Iran through increased sanctions. As long as Trump gives them carte blanche to pursue their plans in Iran, they are prepared to swallow Syria's withdrawal. And in the Iranian case, Washington's policy has been strangely firm and consistent, suggesting that Bolton and Pompeo have a high degree of influence and control over it.

There is another constant in Trump's Middle East policy that goes hand in hand with Iran's cornering policy: unreserved support for Washington's allies in the region. After tense relations with Obama, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel have firm support in the White House. What they have probably learned from Syria's announcement is that any support Trump can offer will be limited to diplomatic, economic and arms export assistance. In no case will Trump send troops to do the work he believes is the job of these countries.

Finally, Syria’s withdrawal will mean that Washington does not have a seat at the table that decides the country’s future. By renouncing the zone of influence it had in the east part of the country, there is no longer any reason for Washington to demand concessions from other players with zones of influence in the country: Iran, Turkey and Russia. It is these three, along with Assad, who will finally decide the future of the country, as they are the only ones who will control territory and have troops deployed there. What does seem certain is that Trump never had much interest in sitting at that table.

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