Overruling many of his military and civilian advisers, President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, bringing a sudden end to a military campaign that largely defeated the Islamic State.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and other national security officials argued that a withdrawal would surrender Western influence in Syria to Russia and Iran and abandon the Kurds, who have been steadfast U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic extremists not just in Syria, but also in Iraq.
There seems little doubt that the president’s Syria decision coupled with his intention to withdraw half of the total U.S. military forces from Afghanistan contributed to Mattis’ resignation.
The rise of the Islamic State can be attributed to a combination of several factors resulting from policies adopted by the Obama administration.
Power vacuums developed both in Iraq and Syria due to what many consider a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011 and President Obama’s decision back regime change in Syria when unrest developed as part of a wider wave of protests during the so-called 2011 “Arab Spring.”
In 2010, Obama ordered his advisors to produce a secret report, later known as Presidential Study Directive-11 (PSD-11), which concluded that the United States should shift from its longstanding policy of supporting stable but authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa to one backing what Obama administration officials considered groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish AK Party — now led by President Erdoğan — as a so-called “moderate” alternative to more violent Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The consolidation of Islamic State control of large areas of Iraq and Syria was fueled by the Obama administration’s abdication of a hands-on approach in Syria, where it sub-contracted American foreign policy to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Not surprisingly, those countries pursued their own interests; the Saudis supporting radical Islamic Salafists, while the Turks and Qataris backed the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goals do not defer markedly from Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, that is, a global caliphate and the implementation of Sharia.
In the past, President Trump has been on both sides of the issue. In 2007, he actually supported a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, despite criticizing Obama for his drawdown years later and calling him the “founder of ISIS.”
In a region swimming with Islamists, both state and non-state actors, the most tragic potential outcome of President Trump’s Syria withdrawal order could be the destruction of the Kurds, not just because they are faithful allies, but because ethnic nationalism is a potent counter-force to Islamic extremism.
Syria, Turkey and Iran view Kurdish nationalism as a threat and will, in the future, as they have done in the past, take measures to destroy it, often working in collaboration to do so, even in the midst of conflicts in which they may be on opposite sides.
For example, Turkey under the leadership of Sunni Muslim President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opposes the Syrian regime of Shia Muslim President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is a NATO-member and a nominal ally of the United States. Assad’s government has strong diplomatic and military support from Russia, is a long-time ally of Iran, and is backed by Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah militant group.
Yet such differences are superseded by their mutual fear of and animosity towards Kurdish independence or autonomy, precisely because ethnic nationalism is a potent force. On Aug. 18, 2016, Turkey and Syria engaged in what appeared to be a coordinated attack against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in and around the city of Hasakah.
The fighting in Hasakah came after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose main component is the YPG, captured Manbij on Aug. 13 a strategically placed town in a northern Aleppo province. Four days earlier, Turkish President Erdogan had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and appears to have obtained his acquiescence to a limited Turkish military intervention in northern Syria.
The Turkish-Russian (at least temporary) understanding, relieved some of the hostility in the wake of the shooting down of a Russian fighter-bomber by a Turkish jet on Nov. 24, 2015.
The disastrous consequences of the Obama-Clinton policies we witnessed in Egypt, Libya and Syria resulted not just from the policy itself but, to no small extent, from the “zero-footprint” manner in which it was executed.
Even without the Islamic State, the Middle East remains an epicenter of Islamic extremism and a complex political-military environment influenced by ethnic aspirations, tribal rivalries, regional hegemony, superpower competition and ever-shifting allegiances.
In the long-term, it is not the responsibility of the United States to reconcile all the various opposing factions in the Middle East but to manage and sometimes leverage the chaos in a manner that fulfills our national security interests.
And that may require a sustained — if limited — diplomatic and military presence.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa.