His Strategic Ineptitude Is On Display in Syria, Where Iran, Turkey and Russia Are Running the Show
A day after telling military leaders to prepare to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Trump reluctantly apparently agreed to commit to eliminating reduced members of ISIS in the region. The official White House statement suggested that those military advisers succeeded in persuading an impatient Trump not to order a quick withdrawal.
Just the day before, Trump said American troops should only be training local forces to ensure security in areas abandoned by ISIS. Trump said other countries, particularly wealthy Arab states in the region, should pay for reconstruction of Syria, including sending their own troops if necessary.
The decision in Washington to withdraw came at virtually the same time Russian leader Vladimir Putin was meeting with Iranian and Turkish officials about the actual future of Syria, a process that cut the Americans out totally and is the first step toward a probable partition of the country among the three powers at the table.
It is a remarkable story playing out, on a number of levels, prompting a rush of actions to try to carry out whichever of the competing messages from the same administration would hold. And, at that, it was not the only one: The Trump administration also seemed to back off just as it was lowering tariffs against China to cool market fears about a pending trade war.
Trump has been making public broad statements that he wants the several thousands of troops to return home immediately, as immediate threats from an ISIS-inspired caliphate have largely been eliminated.
But as he was going on television to offer this direction, U.S. military and intelligence officials across town were saying that the job is not complete, that it’s time to establish a more lasting formula for what happens in that region. Indeed, Trump has suspended some hundreds of millions of dollars targeted for rebuilding in Syria and has shut the door to millions of refugees left by the seven-year conflict.
Trump has gone out of his way to insist that the United States “isn’t getting anything” out of the Syrian conflict, as if there was supposed to be a payment to America, skipping over the fact that we got into Syria because of perceived threats to Americans and the West from ISIS. And, if we roll back the criticism tapes, Trump was all over former President Barack Obama for pulling out of Iraq too soon, creating the conditions that led to ISIS.
In the end, Bashar al-Assad remains as president of Syria, reigning with chemical weapons and continuing assaults on his own people. The deep divisions within the country are unaddressed.
The apparent winners—Russia, Turkey and Iran—will suck up whatever positives exist. Russia gets the availability of southern ports and a permanent, growing influence in the Middle East. Turkey finds continuing and building internal war against its own Kurds, who have been American allies in the fighting against ISIS, and a lean more toward Russia. For Iran, the value is in growing dominance in the region for all sorts of nefarious, continuing trouble-making.
If you’re a Kurd fighter who has been on the front lines with U.S. weaponry and support, you might feel as if you’re being abandoned by the United States through Trump’s comments. If you’re an underground ISIS fighter, you might be encouraged. If you’ve been left a refugee by all the fighting, well, you’re likely to believe that the world, and the United States, in particular, doesn’t care.
In all, probably not the kind of messages we are proud to be sending.
Though all parties talk of territorial wholeness for an emergent Syria, a Bloomberg News analysis outlines that the de facto situation is a carve-up of the country. “If Moscow and Washington agree on how to keep Syria together, it will be a unified state,” said Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Affairs, which advises the Kremlin. “If not, the dividing lines will remain.”
Militarily, the ISIS troops have largely fled or been defeated. Syrian forces have bombed, gassed and shot large numbers of Syrian dissidents, but are protecting a much-reduced Syria. In the northwest, Turkey, which does not necessarily share the idea of keeping Assad, is holding onto territory grabbed in pushing against Kurds allied with insurgents in his own country.
Russia, Iran and Turkey share an antipathy for continuing American presence in the region.
All parties seem aware that they must keep Syrians from engaging Israel in the south.
In many ways, the situation in Syria is a nightmare-come-true for American military and intelligence officials trying to advise a president who reacts to his gut more than to military and strategic advice. We Americans are without a secretary of state or effective diplomacy in the region, we have a strange relationship with Russia and we have a president who wants both to “win” and to bring troops home thus avoiding more international rebuilding projects.
By all insider accounts, Defense Secretary James Mattis and intelligence chiefs have been pushing to maintain a U.S. military presence.
Control of eastern portions of Syria where there are oil wells could give the United States leverage to pursue other goals like pressing Moscow to insist on at least some power-sharing by Assad. The Russians want Assad to regain control of the whole of Syria with rebuilding efforts from the world.
At a White House news conference on Tuesday, Trump said the U.S. has spent more than “$7 trillion in the Middle East over the last 17 years,” a figure he’s repeatedly cited without documentation. “We get nothing—nothing out of it. Nothing,” he said.
Also, while Trump occasionally talks about cooperation with Russia, much of his administration—and almost all of the U.S. political establishment—is fiercely opposed amid continuing investigations into evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Featured image: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, left, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lock hands during a group photo in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday. (Tolga Bozoglu/Pool Photo via AP)