President Donald Trump’s announcement he will withdraw U.S. forces from Syria because the Islamic State (ISIS) has largely been defeated accomplishes two things — neither of which is positive.
First, it undermines the security of two of our most stalwart Middle East allies, Israel and the Kurds. Second, it rewards our enemies, of which there are more than we openly acknowledge.
Clearly, enemies list beneficiaries include the Iran/Syria/Russia alliance and ISIS.
Barack Obama embarked upon a policy of embracing Iran’s mullahs, focused on allowing them to share the Middle East neighborhood as a nuclear power. As Trump took office, implementing a 180-degree course change in Obama’s policy, he became the mullahs’ worst nightmare. Trump’s new Syria strategy, however, may serve as a Christmas present for mullahs committed to a Christian-free, Muslim-dominant globe.
The primary beneficiary of U.S. withdrawal, of course, is ISIS, as the main reason they suffered territorial shrinkage in the region was the US force presence that liberated those areas, assisted by our erstwhile ally, the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds – in this case, the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) militias – have long been a courageous U.S. ally in the ISIS fight, primarily responsible for liberating the “caliphate” capital, Raqqa. The YPG also form the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an army of which Christians are also members that the U.S. stitched together in 2015.
As detailed below, however, it is not just ISIS seeking to eradicate the Kurds. A “largely won” war against ISIS does not translate into a defeated ISIS. Elements of the terrorist group still linger, simply hiding as they adapt to their battlefield setbacks.
Fighting ISIS is really no different than fighting California’s fires. Their ability to spread demands 100 percent elimination. “Largely” eliminating them will not defeat them. And, realistically, it need be recognized ISIS will never be 100 percent eliminated. The ideology driving it is one passed down from generation to generation for centuries with ISIS only being the most recent manifestation of that generational evolution. The ranks of the next generation of these extremists are already being trained today to continue the fight tomorrow.
The presence of U.S. forces in Syria to date has helped the containment effort, but the ISIS fires continue burning, awaiting the opportunity to spread. The removal of a U.S. presence gives ISIS breathing room to regroup, leaving it, like the Phoenix, to arise from the ashes of its supposed destruction. Trump ignores the costly lesson Obama learned that today’s JV team can, indeed, become tomorrow’s varsity.
Among those rejoicing over Trump’s Syria withdrawal is our purported ally, Turkey. As a fellow NATO member, U.S. and Turkish goals for the region should be in sync. They are not. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, serving in power either as prime minister or president since 2003, has been doing the unthinkable. In an effort to return to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, he has put the country’s democracy into retrograde.
As a NATO member, Turkey is required to uphold certain democratic principles which Erdogan, as a self-appointed caliph, fails to do.
One Turkey critic calls for a “civil divorce,” noting that “as Ankara moves toward an authoritarian one-party state, its membership in NATO becomes ever more incongruous.”
But an authoritarian Turkey is not the only dis-alignment of U.S./Turkish views. The Kurds have long been a thorn in Turkey’s side. Erdogan has made every effort to eradicate them. By the U.S. pulling out of Syria, he will be left to do to the Kurds what his predecessors did to the Armenians in 1915: commit genocide. Already he boasts Syrian Kurds will be “buried in their ditches when the time comes.” Only a U.S. presence in Syria has staved this off.
Erdogan demonstrates NATO-unfriendliness in other ways. In an obvious rebuff to the alliance last year, Erdogan — who has been drifting into the sphere of influence of fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin — signed a $2.5 billion deal to buy a Russian-built air defense missile system, the S-400, one incompatible with NATO equipment.
If heightening tensions with Turkey is a reason for Trump’s decision, it only emboldens Erdogan. The ISIS caliphate we contained may well be replaced by a Turkish one.
Also negatively impacted by the U.S. withdrawal is Israel. Despite Trump reversing Obama’s anti-Israel foreign policy by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, one wonders if Israel was given much notice about his Syrian withdrawal plans. President Benjamin Netanyahu’s telephone conversation with Trump Thursday evening suggests not. The discussion focused on continued cooperation with Israel in countering Iranian aggression, but Netanyahu undoubtedly is very concerned about Trump’s decision.
While there will be those who suggest we cannot be Israel’s big brother protector, they fail to see how Israel’s fate will be a precursor to further aggression by Iran and its proxies. A diminished U.S. Syrian role may also negatively impact what were improving Israel/UAE relations.
We are abandoning a trusted ally — the only effective counter-weight to Iran — leaving Israel to face a multi-front threat. While Tehran has been bolstering offensive capabilities for its Shia proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, with missiles and other weaponry, it also has been providing Sunni Hamas with money and equipment. Now, with Iran also given free rein in Syria, Tehran will help arm Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military, bolstering it with its own forces. All of this smacks of the ominous intention of coordinating attacks against Israel.
Forty-three years ago, we abandoned another ally, reneging on our word to South Vietnam to return, should it be invaded by Hanoi. We did not, staining our honor and credibility. Now, we abandon Israel and the Kurds. Some have speculated that this led an honorable Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.
During the administration of President Bill Clinton, there was talk of a U.S./Israel defense treaty, but it never came to be. Perhaps both instinctively believed each would always be there for the other.
In endeavoring to check Islamist aggression in the Middle East, the U.S., Israel and the Kurds have served as a loose coalition, a kind of regional “Three Musketeers” force. Sadly, however, one musketeer now tells the other two, “I am out of here. You both are on your own.” Once again U.S. honor is stained.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.