NEW YORK - President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria is extremely reckless and is bound to backfire in more than one way. To make such a decision, which has major implications that directly and adversely affect our allies in and outside the region, through a simple tweet and against the advice of his senior advisers, is nothing short of outrageous. This is the most valuable New Year’s gift that Trump could possibly give Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey. What on earth did he base his decision on, as from every angle we examine it there seems to be absolutely no good that could possibly come out of it.
In fact, U.S. forces should not only remain in Syria but be further augmented to secure Washington’s as well as its allies’ short- and long-term national interests throughout the region. The reasons for staying and even further boosting U.S. forces in Syria are manifold.
The pullout of U.S. forces at a time when Iran is in the process of establishing several permanent military bases in Syria, loaded with medium- and long-range missiles that can reach any part of Israel, is a recipe for war between Israel and Iran. The American withdrawal would motivate Iran to further destabilize the region, support extremist groups, especially Hezbollah, and accelerate its ballistic missile program. More importantly, it will allow Iran to secure a contiguous landmass from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
Every military observer strongly suggests that the continued American military presence in Syria would force Tehran to think twice before it further entrenches itself in the country, fearing American retaliation that Iran cannot take lightly.
For decades, U.S. allies in the region (the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel) have and continue to depend to various degrees on U.S. protection of their national security. The U.S. military presence in Syria is central and without it, Russia, Iran and Turkey would further destabilize the region and force America’s allies to suffer the consequences from the vacuum that the U.S. leaves behind, which its adversaries will be quick to fill.
Furthermore, Trump’s claim that the Islamic State terrorist group has been defeated and that America’s mission is accomplished is nothing but a bald-faced lie. IS is still very much alive and the U.S. military presence in Syria has both practical and symbolic implications that cannot be ignored. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters remain in the region, and scores of sleeper cells exist throughout the Middle East and Europe. But sadly, given Trump’s domestic troubles, he is desperate for a win, however presumptuous and uncanny, just before the end of the year. Only a sick person, such as this president, will sell his country down the river to satisfy his inflated ego.
More troubling than anything else, Trump is shamelessly betraying one of America’s closest allies in the fight against IS — the Syrian Kurds. By his unconscionable decision, he left their fate to the butcher of Ankara — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who is determined to battle the Syrian Kurds into submission while aiming to establish a permanent presence in the country.
Nothing will deter the main antagonistic players in Syria — the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Turkey — other than a robust American military presence. For these countries, the mere American presence sends a clear message that the U.S. intends to play a weighty role in the search for a solution to the civil war in Syria that will protects its own national interests and those of its allies.
America’s military absence is a factor, and no one who knows the dynamic of the conflict, the power plays, and the continuing volatility of the region can claim otherwise. Even a cursory review of the conflicts currently raging in the Middle East suggests that Washington’s stature is diminishing, and it is much worse off today than it was in 2003.
The absence of American military muscle in Syria would further marginalize the U.S. while allowing Russia, Iran and Turkey to disregard the U.S. without suffering any consequences and give Russia an entirely free hand, making it the ultimate arbiter in the country.
History is instructive, and the U.S., regardless of its global geostrategic national interests, cannot involve itself in every conflict. That said, the U.S. must not be paralyzed by past misguided policies. But if it must withdraw its forces from any country, after 17 years it should be Afghanistan, where it is fighting a simply unwinnable war, no matter how much money and manpower it continues to dedicate to the war effort against the Taliban.
The U.S. cannot impact the development of events in Syria without a credible and strong military backing to deter any adversary from acting with impunity in any way deemed inconsistent with the U.S. and its allies’ strategic interests.
Trump’s haphazard and thoughtless decision to withdraw forces from Syria points only to his abdication of Washington’s moral responsibility, not to speak of its global leadership, which has been dangerously waning under his disastrous policies.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.