What Happened This Week:
After President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement two weeks ago that the U.S. would withdraw the remaining 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria imminently (“They’re all coming back and they’re coming back now”), this week the Trump administration announced that the withdrawal would instead take place over the course of four months rather than the originally quoted 30 days by administration officials.
Why It Matters:
Among a series of questionable foreign policy decisions over Trump’s tenure, the abrupt decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria has proved to be one of the most explosive, drawing rebukes across the political spectrum and almost uniformly from the military establishment. Both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to counter ISIS, resigned as a result.
Thus far, Trump has shown himself committed to keeping his campaign promise to bring home US troops from the Middle East. But his decision to relent on the timing shows he’s beginning to understand the full impact of his snap decision to leave Syria to every other major power wanting a piece of it.
What Happens Next:
In terms of actual military developments, not that much. The U.S. presence of 2,000 troops in the country was marginal, and Syria’s outcome was always going to be determined by those foreign powers with the most direct interests and resources invested over there—namely Turkey, Russia and Iran.
That said, it does bring the future into sharper relief. Syrian President Bashar Assad essentially wins the Syrian civil war outright; Turkey becomes more militarily aggressive but improves its relationship with Washington by vowing to clean up the ISIS remnants in the country; the Kurds (mortal enemies of the Turks and the Americans’ most effective anti-ISIS ally in the country) get slammed once again; Iran gets more room to operate in Syria without U.S. forces breathing down its neck; Russia declares victory by having propped up Assad; Israel gets more nervous without U.S. troops acting as a buffer in neighboring Syria; ISIS gets one less enemy to worry about. Syria, meanwhile, continues to be a geopolitical mess as various actors continue to pursue their own interests in what’s effectively a failed state.
On top of all that, America’s reputation as a dependable military partner and a military difference-maker takes yet another hit.
The Key Fact That Explains It:
At its height, ISIS had more than 4,500 foreign fighters from Western countries amongst its ranks, including more than 250 Americans, according to the Heritage Foundation. Which means that just because ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria (it currently controls less than 2 percent of the territory it once did) doesn’t mean the threat from ISIS vanishes along with it.
The One Thing to Read About It:
For Trump, withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is predicated on Turkey being able to wrap up the fight against ISIS. To understand why that’s so chancy, read this.
The One Major Misconception About It:
That this is a clear-cut victory for Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. On the face of it, yes, both sides get short-term wins from the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria. But longer-term, Russia is left propping up a failed state with questionable strategic importance (sort of like Crimea) and is on the hook for controlling Assad. Iran, meanwhile, is left facing a neighboring Israel that is increasingly nervous absent an American presence in Syria.
The One Thing to Say About It:
With the U.S. making little progress in Syria of late, Trump has seized the chance to blame the whole Syria/ISIS mess on Obama and wash his hands of it, while keeping a campaign promise to his electoral base. But if ISIS coordinates another attack on U.S. citizens once troops have come home, blaming Obama becomes that much harder.
The One Thing to Avoid Saying About It:
If there is one constant in a chaotic and shifting U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, it’s this: the Kurds will always be the ones to get it in the teeth.