U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that American troops are being withdrawn from Syria — assuming that a full withdrawal will be carried out — is of strategic importance to Syria and the entire region. It may have implications for the entire Middle East and the battle for influence between the United States and Russia.
Trump was irresolute from the start about the continued U.S. military presence in the region. When he spoke of “America First” during his campaign (and exaggerated, with some rewriting of history, his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003), his intent was also to reduce American military investment in the Middle East.
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But three months after Trump’s inauguration, Bashar Assad’s regime put up a challenge when it resumed using chemical weapons against civilians despite American warnings.
Trump responded with unusual aggressiveness, using cruise missiles, a step his predecessor, Barack Obama, decided against at the last minute under similar circumstances in 2013.
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Afterward, the new president accepted the recommendation of his generals and left the U.S. soldiers in Syria; around two months ago, it was even reported that he had authorized a doubling of the force, to about 4,000 soldiers. But now he has announced that American diplomats will leave Syria within 48 hours and the last soldier will pack out in a hundred days.
The argument Trump made Wednesday was pretty logical. Obama in the end sent U.S. soldiers to Syria in the summer of 2014 as part of the war he’d declared on the Islamic State. That campaign has more or less ended, in an operational victory for the U.S.-led coalition. The caliphates that Islamic State had declared collapsed, together with its hold on the cities of Mosul, in Iraq and Raqqa, in Syria, after aerial bombardment by the coalition (and ground combat by the Iraqi army in Mosul and particularly Kurdish units in Raqqa).
While thousands of Islamic State militants remain active, they are not concentrated in a single zone of control and their chain of command has been badly damaged.
But the line presented by the generals, led by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who abruptly resigned Thursday night, was different. Focusing the American military effort against Islamic State made it easier for the Assad regime to retake control of other parts of Syria and the south.
After Islamic State was defeated, the United States maintained a presence in Syria in two main areas: the Kurdish region in the northeast and the al-Tanf enclave around a U.S. air base in southern Syria, near the border with Iraq and Jordan. The U.S. presence was seen as blocking the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria.
Tanf in particular served as a “plug” that made it difficult for the Iranians to exploit the new situation and establish an active land corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. In recent weeks senior Israeli defense officials have said that leaving the American soldiers there is of prime importance. Now, according to Trump, they are on their way out.
In recent months Russia has been pressing Iran to reduce arms smuggling to Hezbollah through Syrian territory. But the U.S. hold on Tanf, which it defended aggressively, also aided deterrence.
The list of countries and parties concerned about the Trump decision is long. It includes, along with Israel, the Kurds, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Trump informed him of the move in a telephone conversation earlier this week. The prime minister added that Israel will examine its ramifications and act to guarantee national security.
In the past two years, the prime minister has enjoyed free access to Trump and apparently also has extraordinary influence on him. The administration’s decisions regarding the Middle East — the forgiving attitude toward Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem and the jewel in Netanyahu’s crown, the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran — all seemed to have been taken from Likud’s wish list.
But Trump’s latest announcement (made on Twitter, characteristically) is deeply disappointing to Jerusalem. Israel was counting on Tanf as a bargaining chip; the Pentagon had promised it that the U.S. soldiers would leave only as part of an agreement under which Iranian forces also withdrew from Syria. Unless it emerge that the U.S. withdrawal is part of a comprehensive agreement with Russia — and for now there’s no indication of this — it will leave Moscow holding the cards in Syria.
From Israel’s perspective, this has two implications: First, it is more isolated than before in its efforts to remove the Iranians from Syria, since there is still tension with the Russians in the wake of the downing of the plane in September. Second, Trump, despite his declared sympathy for Netanyahu, is taking a step that totally conflicts with the prime minister’s position. It also raises questions about the future, especially at a time when Trump will be preoccupied with the trade war with China and the cordon tightening on him from the special prosecutor’s investigation into Russian influence on the U.S. election results two years ago.