Once again, in 280 characters or less, Donald Trump upended U.S. policy that many thought was settled. Trump’s series of tweets last month announcing the defeat of ISIS and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria stunned his own national security team, the Congress, and partners in the international coalition fighting the terrorist group. But the apparent reversal should not have been a surprise. Trump has long argued for ending or drastically scaling back U.S. overseas military commitments. In Syria, he had previously pushed for an early withdrawal only to set the idea aside after apparently being convinced that the time was not yet right.
The tweetstorm in December again raised the issue of an immediate U.S. pullout. As with previous changes in policy announced in tweets, Trump’s advisors soon began walking this one back. Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton qualified Trump’s tweet by stating that U.S. forces would remain in Syria long enough to ensure ISIS was defeated, thereby contradicting Trump’s claim that the group was finished. Bolton also promised that the U.S. would ensure the long-term safety of U.S. allies and partners there—an obvious reference to protecting America’s Syrian Kurdish allies from being attacked by America’s NATO Ally Turkey. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the U.S. would stay engaged in the Middle East to ensure the destruction of ISIS and to fight Iranian influence.
Only days after Bolton and Pompeo made these statements, the U.S. military announced the beginning of its withdrawal from Syria, blindsiding allies and sparking a scramble for control of areas U.S. forces were vacating. While it’s not clear how many U.S. troops will withdraw and how fast they will do it, what has become clear is that—once again—Trump and his key advisors are not on the same page.
Formal and Informal Policymaking Systems
Trump chafes at the idea that he is being “managed” by more experienced foreign policy hands, and his announcement of major policy changes via tweets may be a way for him to reassert what he sees as his legitimate authority and to force conversations on issues he cares about. If Bob Woodward’s account of the inner workings of the White House is correct, senior administration officials have pre-empted decisions they thought unwise by simply removing decision memoranda from his desk. In doing so, they were counting on Trump to continue to use the formal, inter-agency policy process that previous presidents have relied on. In that process, the National Security Council serves as the primary policymaking body, with its decisions ratified by the White House and policy issued in a formal memorandum.
But that is not the only way the U.S. makes national security decisions. Presidential statements, whether or not they have been vetted through the National Security Council, also have the weight of formal U.S. policy. And Trump is not the first president to use this method: recall George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “this will not stand” in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Made on the White House lawn after returning from Camp David where the Bush national security team had met to discuss how to respond to the invasion, the statement shocked senior advisors who left the session thinking Bush had not made a final decision.
In tweeting major policy announcements, Trump is both continuing a policy method that previous presidents have used—albeit sparingly—and rebelling against attempts to limit his options to those endorsed by his national security team. On Syria and many other national security issues, Trump’s instincts diverge from those of many in his own administration and the mainstream national security community. The caveats Bolton and Pompeo added to the president’s announcement of a withdrawal from Syria offer a glimpse into this divergence of opinions and how the mainstream national security community fights back.
The Blob Strikes Back: Assessing a U.S. Withdrawal from Syria
There are three main critiques of Trump’s Syria policy from these circles: it will complicate or prevent the enduring defeat of ISIS; it greatly simplifies the plans of the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran for reasserting control over all of Syria; and it will erode American credibility with allies and partners. The national security community made similar arguments about American commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, “the blob,” as senior Obama administration figures called it, has been roundly criticized for never meeting an American military deployment it didn’t like and for “fetishizing” American credibility. Given this critique of the policy prescriptions favored by the mainstream national security community, it makes sense to critically examine its arguments against Trump’s desire to withdraw from Syria.
As far as the enduring defeat of ISIS goes, whether a withdrawal turns out to be a strategic blunder depends upon two things: how quickly U.S. forces actually leave and whether the U.S. continues the fight against ISIS in Syria with non-military instruments of power. As Trump administration officials note, ISIS-controlled territory in Syria stands at about 1% of what it was at the height of the group’s power. The U.S. and its partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), will soon capture the remaining ISIS-controlled territory east of the Euphrates. And with that, the physical caliphate will be no more, aside from some mostly empty desert west of the Euphrates, in the area of Syria where the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies are fighting.
Once the physical caliphate is gone, the task turns to governance and reconstruction. For these tasks, the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria are neither sufficient nor well-suited, since they are mostly Special Forces, artillery, and forward air controllers. As long as U.S. forces remain in Syria until they destroy ISIS’ physical caliphate, Trump can argue they have done the job he directed them to do.
But the end of the physical caliphate is not the end of ISIS. Once defeated as a pseudo-state, the group will become a more “traditional” terrorist group. Its fighters are likely to migrate back to their home countries or to other battlegrounds in radical Islam’s war on the West and its allies in the Islamic world. Its leaders will remain in Syria if possible; if not, they will search for more hospitable ground from which to plan and direct terror attacks.
At this point, ISIS will become one of several terrorist groups the U.S. and its allies are fighting, and the fight will become one more suited to intelligence, law enforcement, and informational instruments of power. If the U.S. uses these instruments effectively, it can continue the fight against ISIS 2.0 after the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. But ISIS will spin a U.S. withdrawal as a victory, which could help its recruiting and allow a resurgence of its fighting power. And the Trump administration will—rightly or wrongly—be accused of enabling the next ISIS-directed or inspired terror attack in the U.S. The criticism the administration is weathering over the recent ISIS-claimed attack in Manbij, Syria, is only a taste of what would come in the aftermath of an attack in America.
Simplifying the Plans of the Regime, Russia, and Iran
The next critique from “the blob” is that a U.S. withdrawal greatly simplifies the plans of the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran for reasserting control over all of Syria. It is true that the U.S. and its allies control two of the three major areas that stand in the way of the Assad regime’s pledge to destroy all Syrian opposition groups. These are the area around Al Tanf in the Syria-Jordan-Iraq border region and the approximately 1/3 of Syria north and east of the Euphrates River. But U.S. Syria policy should not revolve around making life difficult for the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran. Instead, it should revolve around stabilizing Syria within its internationally recognized borders and ensuring it doesn’t again become a breeding ground for terrorist groups that threaten the West and its allies in the region.
The problem with a U.S. troop withdrawal is that it makes that outcome far less likely. Around Al Tanf, the U.S. presence serves three purposes: it protects a U.S.-backed opposition group targeted by the regime; it complicates Iranian attempts to infiltrate fighters and supplies into Syria from Iraq; and it protects the Rukban camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The U.S. presence at Al Tanf was never meant to be permanent, but a precipitous withdrawal simplifies Iran’s plans to extend its regional influence and risks a humanitarian catastrophe that could destabilize U.S. ally Jordan.
This is because Russia and the Assad regime claim that there are “terrorists” among the some 50,000 IDPs in Rukban. The 55-km air and ground security zone around Al Tanf—which the U.S. has enforced on several occasions by destroying regime forces that have entered it—also protects the Rukban camp. So a U.S. withdrawal from Al Tanf will make the camp a tempting target for regime and Russian airstrikes, causing a surge of people fleeing the camp toward the Jordanian border crossing point at Rukban, closed since an attack on Jordanian security forces there in 2016. The potential for massive civilian casualties and the destabilization of Jordan—an already-rickety but critical U.S. partner in the region—is high.
In the northeastern part of Syria now controlled by the SDF with U.S. assistance, the results of an American withdrawal are likely to be no better in terms of ensuring long-term stability. As the war in Syria reaches its endgame, the country’s political future becomes a more salient concern. Continued U.S. partnership with the SDF is important for two reasons: it deters Turkey, Russia, and the Assad regime from attacking it, and it gives Syria’s Kurds and the Sunni tribes east of the Euphrates a voice in any peace agreement. A settlement to the war that takes their interests into account and acknowledges their role in defeating ISIS is far more likely to endure than a settlement imposed from Damascus with Russian and Iranian sponsorship.
Leaving the final status of northeastern Syria to Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime guarantees one of two outcomes. The first of these is a bloodbath, as the regime and its allies—possibly assisted by Turkey—attack the SDF and destroy it. The second is a renewed civil war, if the SDF is able to attract enough outside help to allow it to resist the expected attack. Either of these scenarios could draw the U.S. back into Syria under much less favorable conditions than it currently enjoys there.
The “Credibility Fetish”
One thing—maybe the only thing—the Trump administration shares with the Obama administration is a frustration with “the blob’s” fixation on American credibility. Both presidents have resisted what they see as calls for the use of military force where the objectives are not linked to core U.S. security interests, but are instead framed in terms of preserving U.S. credibility. A healthy skepticism about warning that a U.S. withdrawal could damage American credibility is therefore warranted.
It just so happens that in this case the blob is right: a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Syria will indeed damage U.S. credibility, and this concern matters for two reasons. First, the preferred pattern of military operations for the U.S. since 9/11 has been to use local forces to provide the land power punch, with the U.S. contributing Special Forces, intelligence, and air power to the fight. The initial campaign in Afghanistan and the recent counter-ISIS campaign in Syria are examples. Leaving the SDF to fend for itself against the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and Turkey will leave a lasting stain on the reputation of the U.S. as a reliable partner.
This matters because local U.S. partners have other potential sponsors, most of whom have goals inimical to those of the U.S. In Syria, the SDF could have chosen Russian sponsorship—and Russia continues to try to “peel it away” from the U.S. today. If a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Syria significantly erodes U.S. credibility, America may in the future find itself with fewer local forces willing to accept U.S. sponsorship, leaving Washington with an unpalatable choice between committing significant numbers of its own ground forces and ceding control of a region to rivals. Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed an opinion on Trump’s decision that is probably widespread in the region: “The message it sends is that there really is a question of trust. This will cause many governments to rethink their alliances with a superpower that can . . . throw them under the bus.”
The second reason U.S. credibility matters is that the mere presence of the U.S. in a conflict—even in fairly small numbers—tamps down regional rivalries that might otherwise flare up. The 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria probably have a greater geopolitical effect than even their military effect. The credibility of a U.S. military commitment and the power of the U.S. military convince many states not to seek a military route to defending their interests in Syria. When rivals are tempted to test that commitment—as Russia did in February 2018—they are careful to use proxy forces like the Wagner Group to do so. The U.S. response to that test, which killed some 200-300 Wagner Group fighters, underlined the consequences of escalating a conflict in which the U.S. is involved. The absence of the U.S. on the battlefield could force U.S. partners to pursue their interests through military means and tempt U.S. rivals to do the same. “Self-help” of this type by Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Sunni Arab states—each of whom has a different set of interests in Syria, could allow the Syria war to be the incubator for the first great power war of the 21st century—a war the U.S. would find it impossible to sit out.
Why Withdrawal is the Wrong Move
Trump is well within his rights as Commander-in-Chief to order a U.S. withdrawal from Syria, but that does not mean the decision itself is the right one. It isn’t. Although ISIS’ physical caliphate may be a memory, the group’s planning and leadership cells in Syria’s Euphrates River Valley retain the ability to direct strikes on the U.S. and its allies. When they do, Trump will find himself explaining why he withdrew U.S. forces from Syria before destroying its leadership there.
Next, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria seriously undermines the chances for a durable peace in the region. First, it removes the main obstacle to Iran’s dream of a “Shia Crescent” from Tehran to Beirut. Both at Al Tanf and in northeastern Syria, the U.S. military presence makes it harder for Iran to move fighters and weapons into Syria and onward into Lebanon. Not only is resisting Iranian influence in the region a core tenet of U.S. policy, but Iran’s realization of its dream would make the prospect of a direct conflict between Iran and Israel much more likely. Next, it could destabilize U.S. ally Jordan by causing a massive movement of refugees toward Jordan from the Rukban IDP camp, currently under U.S. protection but a likely target of Russia and the Assad regime upon a U.S. departure. Finally, U.S. retrenchment removes the one credible external voice capable of representing the interests of Syria’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs, the groups most responsible for the defeat of ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. A post-war order that involves direct rule of northern and eastern Syria from Damascus—as opposed to a federal system that preserves some regional autonomy—is likely to be bloody to establish and difficult to preserve.
The final reason an early U.S. withdrawal from Syria is unwise is that it will indeed damage U.S. credibility. This is important not for credibility’s sake alone, but because U.S. credibility as a partner is critical to allowing the U.S. to continue to fight with local proxy forces, reducing or eliminating the need for the deployment of U.S. ground forces. If it is unable to find local partner forces in future conflicts where it has interests at stake, the U.S. will be forced to choose between ceding those interests to others or deploying U.S. ground forces to defend them.
U.S. credibility and the potency of U.S. military power are also important in tamping down rivalries among other states involved in the Syrian conflict. A U.S. withdrawal is therefore likely to lead to escalation among these powers; in this case, Syria could be the incubator of the first great power conflict of the 21st century.
Donald Trump is right to question the wisdom of continuing to prosecute the “forever wars” he inherited. He is also correct that all wars must end, but removing U.S. forces from Syria now, before ISIS is rooted out completely and before a durable political settlement is in place, could have long-lasting negative effects on the region and on America’s ability to defend its interests at lowest cost to itself.
If you’ve read this far and remember this article’s title, you are probably asking yourself what any of this has to do with Leon Trotsky. The answer lies in Trotsky’s remark, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Donald Trump’s disinterest in the details of the Syrian civil war and the wider Middle East does not mean that the effects of that war and the geopolitics of that region will leave the United States untouched.