Trump wants to end America’s “forever wars” but it is Putin who has the greater control in Syria

Donald Trump's actions on Syria expose his catastrophic impulsiveness, but America's strategic incoherence and weakness goes well beyond the president.

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Without America’s “forever wars” in the Middle East there quite probably would be no President Donald Trump. In his supposedly implausible quest for the Republican nomination, Trump attacked the party establishment in February 2016 for failing to see that, after spending “five trillion dollars” over 15 years in the region, “we haven’t won anything”. During the presidential campaign, he said Hillary Clinton’s promise to establish no-fly zones in Syria, with Russian military aircraft active in the country, was courting “world war three”. These attacks hurt his opponents. Most voters are long disillusioned with America’s Middle Eastern failures, choosing in 2008, 2012 and 2016 the presidential candidate vowing to end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria respectively.

But in announcing on 6 October that the US will withdraw troops from northern Syria, Trump risks bestowing political capital on the House Democrats who wish to impeach him. Syria is perhaps the one issue that has the potential to make the Republican Senate leadership politically accept the Democrat accusation that Trump is unfit to hold office and should be removed by non-electoral means. Trump’s decision is costing Kurdish lives, strengthening the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad, and palpably amplifies the never well disguised reality that his foreign policy decision-making is chaotic.

Trump can score points with many voters on Syria. But, even without his impetuosity, he cannot escape the political impasse on the issue in Washington, DC, and the poor choices available when America’s cumulative failures in the Middle East have elevated Russian power in the region.

The US military entered Syria under Barack Obama in 2014 at the head of an international coalition to fight Islamic State (IS). This mission only arose because Obama’s initial policy aim of using the Syrian opposition to procure regime change in Damascus fell apart. The military commitment Obama made after IS made sweeping territorial gains was also half-hearted. Having promised that he would not place American troops in Syria, Obama needed local militias to do the ground fighting under American air cover, first of all in the Syrian border town of Kobanî. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) were the most viable option.

Immediately, this tactical imperative set up an inescapable conflict with Turkey, since it considers the YPG a terrorist organisation. Indeed, the costs of antagonising a fellow Nato member with a Mediterranean air base, Incirlik, on which the US depends led some Republicans now furious with Trump to assail Obama as absurdly irresponsible. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s most ferocious Republican critic in the Senate on abandoning the YPG and Kurdish cities in Syria to Turkey, once called arming the YPG “the dumbest idea in the world”.

Trump’s rhetoric and policy are mired in the contradictions generated by these strategic American weaknesses. During the 2016 campaign, he was simultaneously against forever wars and for defeating Isis. In May 2017, he decided to arm directly the YPG to retake Raqqa, IS’s de facto Syrian capital, and then six months later he promised to stop arming the YPG after complaints from the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Trump was also trapped from the start by a foreign-policy establishment aware there are no answers, but that won’t allow any admission of failure, as this would further expose American weakness against Russia in the Middle East. He assumed he had won some political space by ordering in April 2017 an air strike on Syrian government forces in response to the chemical weapons attack at Khan Shaykhun. But when, three months later, he agreed with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit a ceasefire in south-west Syria, Congress responded with a new sanctions bill against Moscow.

After he tried to accommodate Erdogan in November 2017, the State Department and Pentagon ensured that arms shipments to the YPG continued anyway. When IS appeared finally defeated in December 2018, Trump tweeted that the US would withdraw all its troops, only for James Mattis, the then defence secretary, and Brett McGurk, the US special envoy on IS – to resign. Within weeks, Trump was forced to agree to a slower and incomplete withdrawal. Having retreated, his then national security adviser, John Bolton, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, began suggesting that the remaining US troops would stay until all Iranian influence in Syrian was ended – an eventuality that would require a confrontation with Russia.

Trump is in part doomed on Syria because more than any other issue it exposes the near-catastrophic consequences of his impulsiveness. At least three times he has changed the administration’s policy after a phone conversation with Erdogan. His disdain for the foreign policy-making process drove Mattis and others away, and it has left America’s supposed allies in the anti-IS coalition bewildered.

But incoherence on Syria in US politics goes well beyond Trump. Joe Biden has also promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East” while attacking Trump’s “America first” foreign policy. Various other high-profile Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, have signed a pledge to end the forever wars, but have still attacked Trump’s troop withdrawal as irresponsible. “We need a strategy to end this conflict,” Warren tweeted.

That is wishful thinking, because the reality is that Russia now has a greater capacity to find an endgame in Syria than the US, and without any prospect of resolution on American terms the electoral pressure to end the forever wars will not abate. 

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war