By Donald Nuechterlein
The abrupt pullout of U.S. troops from Syria produced a storm of protest in Washington, including members of Congress, the media, and national security agencies. The Pentagon was negative about the move, and given the task to carry out the president’s order. A year ago, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned when Trump tweeted that he wanted U.S. troops to leave Syria. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, resigned recently over disagreement with the president’s foreign policy moves.
How should we assess the importance of Syria to America’s strategic interests in the wider Middle East?
Donald Trump believes we have no vital interests that require him to station forces in Syria. He argues that we sent troops there in 2014 to crush ISIS, a dangerous threat to Europe and the U.S. Their mission was accomplished, he says, when Raqqa, its capital, was captured and thousands of ISIS fighters were imprisoned. The killing of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by U.S. special forces adds to the demise of ISIS.
President Trump reached a deal last month with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan to evacuate a small American force from its border with Syria and permit Turkish troops to control a strip of land 20 miles deep inside northern Syria. Kurdish fighters drove out ISIS from this area two years ago; now Turkish militias brutally cleared that zone of Kurds. Erdogan claims they threaten Turkish territory. Although Trump hailed the deal as a great victory for the U.S., the Wall Street Journal called it “Erdogan’s Clean Sweep” (Oct. 24).
What Trump refuses to acknowledge is that more than 10,000 Kurdish troops died fighting ISIS in Syria.. The U.S. provided them with air and special forces support while sustaining few casualties. Kurds also guarded prison camps where thousands of ISIS fighters were detained, and many escaped when Kurdish guards departed. The Pentagon announced that U.S. troops will remain in eastern Syria to guard its oil fields against a resurgent ISIS. But according to a new agreement reached between Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Russian troops will assist in patrolling the new security zone. Turkey claims this will extend 300 miles across Syria’s northern border to Iraq’s territory. Trump calls this a “win” for the U.S.; critics consider it a “betrayal” of the Kurds. As the Economist stated editorially, “Who can trust Trump’s America: The consequences of betraying the Kurds” (Oct. 19).
The counter argument, heard at the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, and in Congress, is that abandoning Syria to the Russians and Turks is a strategic debacle. Those holding this view argue that Syria is just the tip of the problem, that America’s entire position in the Middle East is now compromised. They worry that neighboring countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Israel, even Saudi Arabia, will now look to Moscow, as Turkey has, to provide regional security. They contend that if Syria is not deemed a vital U.S. interest, a modest military presence there is essential to America’s security role in the wider Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf where the Navy has a fleet based at Bahrain. These officials argue that America has a vital interest in preventing this oil-rich region from descending into political chaos, which would affect the economies and security of Europe and East Asia, notably our ally Japan.
The central question remains: Does America have any vital interests in the Middle East requiring the presence of large military forces? If we conclude that America got involved after World War II because of Cold War with the USSR and Britain’s inability to maintain its prewar stabilizing role, we concluded that the U.S. had a vital interest in preventing the Russians from expanding their influence. Now, with the Cold War a distant memory (it ended 30 years ago), the ISIS threat ended, and Turkey working with Moscow, America’s interest is no longer vital. Israel is well armed to defend itself with U.S. assistance, but it needs soon to make an international agreement providing statehood for the Palestinians, with security guarantees.
The crucial issue for American policymakers is this: Does the U.S. have a vital interest in containing Iran’s Revolutionary Republic’s ambition to extend its influence in the Middle East? If so, it requires a sustained military presence in the Persian Gulf including Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. What we may be seeing is a strategic bargain between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. with an assist from Recep Erdogan, to divide responsibility in the Middle East between a west overseen by Russia and Turkey, and an east managed by the United States. This is a major foreign policy decision, one that the Senate’s foreign relations committee urgently needs to debate, instead of leaving the decision solely to the president’s judgment.
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville.