Those who thought that the US was doomed to stay in Syria indefinitely (as was mentioned by the Pentagon last week) were surprised when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article saying that the US military had been ordered to leave Syria as soon as possible.
The WSJ revealed Wednesday morning the Pentagon is preparing to withdraw all forces from northeastern Syria “immediately.”
The WSJ reported, “In an abrupt reversal, the U.S. military is preparing to withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, people familiar with the matter said Wednesday, a move that throws the American strategy in the Middle East into turmoil.”
“U.S. officials began informing partners in northeastern Syria of their plans to begin immediately pulling American forces out of the region where they have been trying to wrap up the campaign against Islamic State, the people said.”
The Washington Post added, “The [defense] official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that has not yet been announced, said the decision would include the entire force of more than 2,000 U.S. service members. It was made on Tuesday, the official said.”
“President Trump has long promised to conclude the campaign against the Islamic State and has questioned the value of costly and dangerous military missions overseas.”
The political reaction in Washington was swift. Republican Senator Graham called it, “A stain on the honor of the United States.” Other responses ran from complaints that ISIS was still in existence to the fact that the US was leaving its Kurdish allies in the lurch.
The reaction by American voters was much different. A poll released by Gallup a day earlier showed that only 1% of voters thought the situation in Syria was serious, while concerns about immigration and government were considerably more important.
Although the announcement was sudden, Israel has been aware of the American desire to withdraw from Syria for a year according to Haaretz. PM Netanyahu said that the US has “other ways to wield their influence in that arena.”
There is also the question of how American generals and Secretary of Defense Mattis reacted to the decision. They may disagree with the pace of withdrawal, but the Pentagon has other long-term concerns too.
One problem the generals have highlighted is the fact that US forces have been worn down by constant deployments in the Middle East. The result is that much of the defense budget must go to funding these operations and paying for maintenance – not implementing the modernization the Pentagon desires and needs to compete with Russia and China.
Why now? While much of the media said that Trump reacted to a threat by Turkey’s Erdogan and the Turkish military posed to invade Syria, there is a much more complex reason that goes beyond the Middle Eastern borders.
The Syrian situation has been a complex one for Trump. While he wanted to leave Syria, many Neo-con Republicans pushed for Trump to increase the number of American soldiers in Syria in order to overthrow president Assad. Although those voices are still heard, they don’t have the influence they once had. The chief critic of withdrawal from Syria, Senator McCain, is now dead and the neo-cons have lost their most effective voice in the government. Second, a major neo-con publication that has pushed for an active Syrian role for the US, the Weekly Standard, is now out of business and is no longer able to attack Trump.
According to some supporters of Trump are claiming this withdrawal isn’t necessarily a defeat for Trump and America. They promote the idea that Syrian President Assad’s most important allies, Russia and Iran, are an odd couple who have widely different ideas for Syria’s future.
By withdrawing, the US is no longer a common foe of these two nations and Russia and Iran will seek to follow their own policies in Syria, which will damage their currently friendly relationship.
But what has really driven the rapid move out of Syria and created a degree of American rapprochement with Turkey is the growing Russian threat in the Black Sea and the Ukraine.
Turkey and Russia have been enemies for hundreds of years and have fought each other to expand their spheres of influence in numerous wars. The recent warming relations between the two nations were due to the conflicting US and Turkish policy in Syria and Erdogan’s desire to play the two major powers off against each other.
That changed a few weeks ago. Russian military forces opened fire on three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea, rammed one of them, and seized all three.
Russia claims the boats had illegally entered its sovereign waters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned of a “full-scale war,” a day after he claimed to “have serious grounds to believe Russia is ready to follow with a ground attack.” The Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had “begun testing the readiness of formations and military units of the Southern Military District,” a region that includes the disputed Crimea and borders parts of Ukraine. Russian military vehicles have been massing in the vicinity of the border.
Russian tough measures have been repeated along the whole NATO border and Russia even sent nuclear capable bombers to visit Venezuela last week.
This renewed Russian aggressiveness in the Black Sea, which Turkey controls access to, has worried Turkey. Playing Russia off against the US is a nice diplomatic ploy, but Turkey is now viewing Russia as a threat – especially in regard to sailing rights in the Black Sea.
Suddenly, the NATO treaty that Erdogan seemed willing to discard has real importance. Since it states that an attack on one member is the same as an attack on all NATO members, strengthening Turkey’s ties with NATO also protects Turkish ships and aircraft from Russian attacks like the Ukraine experienced.
Another concern for Turkey was the announcement that Russia had completed replacing Crimea’s air defense with the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Russia had begun deployment of the missile batteries just days after the confrontation with the Ukraine ships.
The S-400 has an operation range of 400 km, which puts the airspace of NATO countries under threat. And, in a more pointed threat, the Russian foreign minister political director Olexly Makeyev noted, “We know these missiles can be used also for ground targets.”
This is the reason for the rapid rapprochement between Turkey and the US in the last few weeks. Russian projected power is more of a threat to both the US and Turkey than Syria.
So, what can we expect to see in the next few weeks?
The US military is very mobile, and we can see several units leaving Syria rapidly. In fact, it appears that the withdrawal is already happening.
White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders has issued a formal statement on troop withdrawal from Syria: “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
Moments after President Trump confirmed reports of US pullout via Twitter saying “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” Pentagon officials said the president “ordered full US troop withdrawal from Syria,” and that this will be “rapid” — apparently already beginning, per a Reuters breaking report: “All U.S. State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours – official.”
However, if it seems that the US is withdrawing too fast, remember that the US can insert troops as quickly as it withdraws them. And, there are already US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Also remember that a lot depends on what the Pentagon means when it says it is withdrawing all forces. The figure of 2,000 troops is mentioned when talking about withdrawal, but many sources say there are about 4,000 US forces in Syria. That may very well mean that 2,000 troops will remain to carry out low profile operations.
Chances are great that several US Special Forces teams will remain in Syria to train Syrian forces allied with the US. And, there are US Special Forces across the border in Kurdish Iraq. This will make it difficult for either Turkey or Syria to defeat the Kurdish forces.
The warming relations between Turkey and the US may also mean the “low profile” stationing of US personnel in Turkey. These include US reconnaissance aircraft, signals intelligence personnel, and US Special Forces.
Also expect the deployment of more NATO ships to the Black Sea.
The US withdrawal from Syria is a mixed blessing for Russia. It does mean that some Russian forces can be redeployed. However, they are expected to continue manning the Syrian air defense systems.
While Russia can cut back on its military presence, it now must keep its promises of foreign aid to help rebuild Syria.
As one recent intelligence study put it: “The prospect of US being militarily involved in Syria, caught in middle of one of most complex conflicts in recent memory, with shifting objectives & ambiguous endgame, has been met with congressional indifference and public apathy.”
The current withdrawal allows Trump to keep a campaign promise by getting out of one Middle Eastern quagmire, block Iranian influence on the shore of the Mediterranean, and prevent Russian expansionism. There is the added benefit of strengthening NATO’s southern flank.
What happens in the long term is a little more uncertain. Although Turkey and Russia are hereditary enemies, Erdogan is fickle and may move back to Russia’s side if it benefits him. However, he currently has a two-front situation with Russia – on his northern border and south in Syria. And, since Russia has invested a lot in Syria, it won’t want the sort of Turkish interference that Erdogan might envisage.
Much will depend on president Assad and his ability to bring stability to Syria and resolve the competing policies of Russia and Iran.
Much also depends on Putin. NATO has informally agreed to Russia’s dominant role in Syria. However, they aren’t willing to grant the same to him in the Ukraine. If Putin tries to expand his influence in the Ukraine, NATO might try to” trim his wings in Syria”.
In other words, while the US has taken its pieces off the Syrian “chessboard,” it has added some pieces to the Russian “Chessboard.”
So, what is the verdict on the Syrian withdrawal? The politicians may not like it. The generals may not like it. However, the American voter must like it – which is one reason they voted for Trump.
Source: Center for American and Arab Studies