Middle East: the US defence policy turmoil

On December 19th, US president Donald Trump made a move that took almost everybody, including members of his own administration, off guard. In a series of tweets, he ordered a full, rapid withdrawal of over 2,000 US troops from Syria. Trump’s announcement upended a central pillar of American policy in the Middle East and stunned US lawmakers and allies, who challenged the President’s claim of victory.

What have been the consequences on US and European defence policy ?


Resignations and political opposition

On the US side, Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned one day after Trump’s announcement. Mattis in his resignation letter cited policy differences with Trump, saying that the president do not share the same priorities. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the State Department, also submitted his resignation on a few days later, due to his disagreement with the president’s decision to withdraw the troops.

Trump’s decision was also condemned both by the rival Democrats, who said he had not thought through his decision, and Republicans, who feared the geopolitical effects, French media France 24 highlights. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, usually a loyal supporter of Trump, for example charged that ISIS was not defeated and that a withdrawal will embolden Iran and abandon Kurdish allies.


US allies rattled by Mattis resignation

Europe responded with a mixture of panic, disorientation and frantic steps to limit the damage after the resignation of US defence secretary, James Mattis, The Guardian analyses. The resignation deprives Europe of one of its most reliable interlocutors  and a firm supporter of the Nato transatlantic alliance. It is seen in Europe as an alarming symbol of Trump’s determination to take personal charge of foreign policy. The pointed reference in his resignation letter to the need to treat allies with respect will echo across a continent alienated by the president’s insults and caprice, according to the British newspaper.

« Secretary Mattis has made a key contribution to keeping NATO strong and ready to deal with the significant security challenges we face. He is widely respected as a soldier and a diplomat » NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu


A premature move for Europe

Western allies including Great Britain, France and Germany described Trump’ move as premature. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, was discussing with allies whether a supported French presence could act as a temporary substitute for the departing US ground troops in Syria. Moreover, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria in the belief that Islamic State (ISIS) had been defeated was “extremely grave”.

Germany also insisted that Isis remained a security threat. “The ISIS has been pushed back, but the threat is not over. There is a danger that the consequences of [Trump’s] decision could hurt the fight against the IS and endanger what has been achieved,” the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said in a statement.

Even if a European force in Syria to combat Isis and protect the Kurds proves unrealistic, underlining the lack of its independent military capability, European politicians were fuming at the manner of Trump’s decision-making. Indeed, neither the Syrian withdrawal nor the prospect of cutting troop numbers in Afghanistan were preceded by any serious consultation with his European allies, many of whom either have ground troops or air forces operating in both countries.

“A victory for Russia, Iran, Turkey, Turkish proxies & the Syrian regime. Unsurprisingly, it leaves Europeans more vulnerable – and shows how wrong it is that we do not have a defence force able to help stabilise our immediate neighbourhoodGuy Verhofstadt, ALDE leader at EU Parliament


Confusion over US withdrawal

Speaking in Israel on January 6, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton said US troops would remain in northeastern Syria until Islamic State forces are routed and Kurdish fighters were ensured of protection. Bolton said there were “conditions” that must be met before the US pullout that could take months or even years. US Secretary of State Pompeo reaffirmed it a few days later.

« Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over, » US Secretary of State Pompeo

And on 11th January, the US has begun withdrawing from Syria, a military spokesman said, as international observers struggled to make sense of the future of US policy in Syria. “Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troops movements, » the US-led coalition spokesperson Colonel Sean Ryan stated, quoted by Reuters.

Regarding the US policy in the middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued in an interview that President Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria is a « tactical change » that does not affect his administration’s goals in the Middle East.

« The tactical change we’ve made and the withdrawal of those 2,000 troops is just that — a tactical change. Mission remains the same » Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

What would this US withdrawal mean for the Middle East?


Contrary to what President Trump said in his Tweet, now that the Trump administration officially announced its intention to leave Syria for good, it appears that regional powers who have been active participants in Syria’s war will likely increase their efforts to gain control of the areas that are currently under US control.


Reinforcement of Russia and Iran

Regaining control over these territories is of vital importance for Russia, Aljazeera explains. Moscow lacks the funds to sustain major reconstruction efforts in post-conflict Syria, without which its costly military achievements – defeating the opposition and securing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – would be hollow. It also wants to be financially rewarded for its military support of the Syrian regime. Hence it had long been eyeing the oil and gas fields that are currently under US control. Now that the US is leaving, Russia will do everything necessary to be the power that fills this vacuum.

Iran is also interested in the US-controlled Syrian territories, albeit for completely different reasons. Iran will resume its efforts to have the trans-Syria land corridor reopened (from Tehran to Damascus and to Hezbollah in Lebanon) by trying to increase its influence over northeast Syria.


Turkey’s threats 

Turkey too is interested as it has long accused the US-backed SDF of trying to establish an independent state in northeast Syria and has called repeatedly for the US to end its support for the Kurdish group, which it considers to be the Syrian arm of the PKK. It has sent its troops to the Syrian border and threatened to send them into Syria to fight the Kurds.

US President Donald Trump tweeted he would inflict economic devastation on Turkey if it attacked US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. But it did not seem to bother Turkey, as Turkey’s foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu warned: “We will not be frightened, we will not be scared by any threat” and added that “strategic partners don’t talk via twitter”. Turkey now sees itself as emerging from America’s shadow as an independent geopolitical actor that owes fealty to no one, the Washington Post analyses.


« When America retreats, chaos often follows »

The last words, that could resume the situation, has ironically been pronounced by the US Secretary of state Pompeo in remarks aimed at Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear deal (but which could also be applied to the withdrawal from Syria) – he said in a speech called “America Reinvigorated in the Middle East” on January 10th:

We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance” US Secretary of State Pompeo


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