Robert HARNEIS –TDO-(FRANCE) - President Donald Trump has moved decisively to change policy in Syria by announcing the immediate withdrawal of US troops. The decision seems to have come as a surprise to commanders on the ground and members of Congress. It also comes after he reached an agreement with Turkish President Erdogan involving the purchase of US Patriot Missiles.
It seems that for some time there has been a debate within the US administration as to whether the need to save US face in the Middle East was more important than saving the Turkish alliance. Trump himself reminded the world that he has always been in favor of leaving Syria remarking in a tweet ‘Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing their work. Time to come home & rebuild.’
His reference to events six months ago refers to his having halted talk of a US withdrawal because of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government against rebel forces in Eastern Ghouta. The chemical incident was widely believed to have been a false flag operation organized by the rebels themselves to discredit the Syrian government and their Russian allies. It led to a missile attack on Syria by the US with allies France and Britain and Trump dropping his plans to withdraw.
This time he has taken the precaution of giving no warning as to his plans so as to prevent any possible provocative action by any party anxious to keep US troops in Syria and sabotage the withdrawal. The Israel lobby and the US war party are unhappy as they claim the move will embolden Russia and Iran.
According to Reuters the move carries echoes of Trump’s repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change accord and is in keeping with his America First philosophy and the pledge he made to end U.S. military involvement.
A former senior Trump administration official said the president’s decision basically was made two years ago, and that Trump finally stared down what he considered unpersuasive advice to stay in.
“The president won. His inclination was always not to be there,” said the former official who is close to the White House, saying a variety of senior advisers had argued against pulling out.
In meetings with top advisers, Trump would ask: “What are we doing there? I know we’re there to fight ISIS, but we did it. Now what?” said the former official.
The abrupt change of tack has made France and the UK, Washington’s close allies look slightly silly as it appears, they were not consulted. They will once again be wondering about the reliability of Washington as an ally. Very recently senior US officials have been talking of staying Syria permanently.
It seems the key argument has been that ISIS is pretty much defeated and that remaining was risking US forces being subjected to guerilla attacks by local forces unwilling to be permanently occupied. The US has also come down heavily in favor of NATO ally Turkey which has been growing steadily more concerned about a US/Israel sponsored Kurdish state on its borders. All the more so that the Kurds have anyway been negotiating with the Syrian government for a return to their former status in the Syrian Republic. A further element in the debate has been growing US domestic oil production which means the Middle East is simply less important to the US with its over stretched budget and military.
The move will de-escalate a dangerous confrontation with Turkey and above all bring Trump’s foreign policy back into line with his election promises with a view to America First and re-election in 2020. He was particularly scornful of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s support for the Syrian rebels during the 2016 presidential election campaign, taunting her ‘So she wants to fight. She wants to fight for rebels. There's only one problem. You don't even know who the rebels are. So, what's the purpose?’
All that being said, given the unstable state of US policy making a further change of mind is not out of the question. It is quite clear that Trump meant what he said when he called for an end to US military involvement in Syria. However, it is still not entirely clear that he has the power to defy the lobbies and carry his policy through to completion. If he does it will be a popular move with his electorate and a step towards re-election.