28 December 2018

A withdrawal as a defeat (On President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the US military forces from Syria)

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

The Twitter message that puts the Middle East on the front news


On Dec. 19, Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he had decided to withdraw US forces from Syria following his victory over the Islamic State, the president's only assumed reason for the presence of US forces in the Syrian Kurds. The announcement was made in the style of the great achievements: "After the historic victories against ISIS, it is time to bring our young people home!"

First reactions, first resignation


In the hours following the announcement of the decision, six senators from both parties, including one of the Senate's allies in the US Senate, Senator Lindsey O. Graham, in an open letter, asked him to reconsider his position, arguing that, through this withdrawal, the Islamic State will return as a regional threat. And there were not the only messages which were overwhelmed, if not disappointed, by the President's decision. Not only in the US, but also in Europe. The well-known Dutch politician, Guy Verhofstadt, commented that "it is a victory for Russia, Iran, Turkey ... for the Syrian regime ... letting the Europeans vulnerable ..."

Even the father of the White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, also a supporter of the president, on Twitter, sent the appeal to rethink this decision, which is "a betrayal of the Kurds who " sacrificed their blood for Americans", also arguing that Syrian Christians will remain without protection ("sitting ducks") after this withdrawal.

There were, of course, positive, more cautious or more direct appreciations, especially at international level. Russian President Vladimir Putin had a refraining  note, although he appreciated, how else, that the decision is right but: "We do not see any sign of this withdrawal, yet". Turkey, throuhg the message sent on December 21 by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, welcomes Trump's decision and suggests that there should be a coordination.

One day after announcing this decision, a new message announces in the same style: "General Jim Mattis will withdraw with distinction at the end of February ..." After two years in charge, as the head of the Department of Defense, a period wherein he had coordinated actions with President Trump to acquire new military equipments or to persuade NATO allies to increase budget defense defenses (so often called 2% for the military budgets), achievements that have been praised by the president, but he also had divergences with him, General Mattis has written his resignation letter.

In a laconic and precise style, as the profile of a four-star general with 44 years of military career, Mattis does not make direct allegations, but suggests in a moralizing tone that "treating the allies with respect" is one of the coordinates of this career.

What follows after this decision?


For the time being, how they will materialize it is not that clear. President Trump also announced the withdrawal of 5,000 troops from the Afghanistan contingent. Where the United States is not lonely, many of NATO's partners and members, including Romania, are also present with national contingents. There are decisions that are changing the benchmarks of US involvement, even of NATO, in two extremely important strategic areas, the Middle East and South Asia. In Syria, Americans are, also, not alone. The United Kingdom and France contributed with military contingencies and, after the announcement, they announced that they would continue anti-ISIL operations in Syria. The historical past in the region forces London and Paris to maintain that presence. There is also Israel, the main US ally in the region, extremely interested in keeping its enemies away and the friends very close. Presidential adviser John Bolton said, just three months ago, that the US would remain in Syria as long as the Iranians were also there.

Thus, although abruptly announced, argued with unclear victories against ISIS, but also with the Administration's other military successes, the decision to withdraw the 2000 US military from Syria could be completed by complementary measures that would give, at least to the Kurds, a less bitter pill than the one which is offered as a sweetener:

  • coordination with Turkey to make a transfer of responsibility for the North and East of Syria. According to the media, this coordination already exists, even the withdrawal follows a direct discussion between the two presidents, Trump and Erdogan, and the conclusion of a $ 3.4 billion contract for Turkey to buy a significant number of Patriot systems;


  • coordination with Russia and Israel to create conditions for a withdrawal of Iranian military advisers and the shia militiamen supported by Iran. Here things are more complicated because, on one hand, with Russia, the dialogue is always accompanied by suspicion of bilateral agreements following the Helsinki bilateral summit, and on the other hand, Israel has a separate and individual chapter in the US security strategy ;


  • greater involvement of Great Britain and France in the operations and locations in Eastern Syria, possibly from the Al-Tanf enclave, on the border with Jordan and Iraq, to ​​keep active a number of rebel Syrian groups. The two countries have been involved in the region for at least 100 years, its contested map is drawn by two diplomats, one British, Sykes, the other French, Picot. And at that time, 1916, there was an agreement of Russian diplomacy for this division. Nothing new, so, in the sands of the Middle East.

Who always loses? The correct answer is ...


The Kurds, who have hoped so much for US support, are now forced to resume, some media sources say this has already happened, contacts with the regime in Damascus to calm down their expectations and hopes. In January, it will start the negotiations for the new Syrian constitutional architecture, the one who is in a hurry can get a confederation, local autonomy, something. Damascus's offer is limited.

When the Syrian Democratic Forces (mostly Kurdish) gave, at least to the visible military structures of the group, the last blow to the Islamic State by attacking its new capital in the East of Syria, Hajin, they actually signed their condemnation, the loss of the only ally they could count on in fulfilling the goals of strengthening autonomy in northern Syria and providing protection against Turkey's threats.

The sacrifices of Kurdish militants who fought to take the control of the last ISIS bastion on the Euphrates bank, gave Trump the victory he needed to let them in Erdogan's hand.