Trump’s bid to withdraw from Syria “very soon” undermines US anti-Iran strategy

This section is an extract from Le Beck's Weekly Security Brief that provides insights on more strategic issues.

In a comment contradicting multiple previous US statements, President Donald Trump indicated that US forces would be out of Syria “very soon” and allow others “take care of it now”. In line with such a statement, the Trump administration further froze a $200 million fund meant to help recovery efforts in Syria. This was followed by conflicting reports and statements, including ones suggesting that the US was actually planning to send reinforcements to the country.

The statement, which follows the appointment of two anti-Iran hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, respectively, certainly sends mixed messages as to the US commitment to roll back Iran and maintain its course in Syria. The statement indeed conflicts with the messages sent by Bolton and Pompeo’s appointments, which several US allies welcomed and saw as a sign that a more pro-active strategy to roll back Iran’s influence would be implemented. This is particularly the case for both Saudi Arabia and Israel, which quietly campaigning for US forces not only to stay committed to their Kurdish-led partner in Syria, which is seen as a bulwark against Iranian influence, but also actively use their presence as a way to weigh in on the country’s future.

This explains why Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) was one of the first to implicitly criticise Trump’s statement just days after visiting Washington. In a statement, MbS highlighted the importance of the US presence in Syria. Since the capture of Raqqah last year, Riyadh has shown its resolve to support US efforts to rebuild territories captured from the Islamic State (IS), as highlighted by a visit by the Saudi Minister of Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan last year to the city. The Saudi interest in rebuilding areas taken by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) comes from the perception that, should they not be supported both militarily and financially, the Kurds will have no incentive to keep Arab-populated areas of Syria and would, rather, use it as a bargaining tool in negotiations with Damascus. Indeed, despite the rivalry between the SDF and pro-regime forces in eastern Syria, both sides have, at times, expressed their willingness to negotiate a settlement over the control of territory captured from IS. If the Kurds feel that international and particularly US support s waning, they will likely prefer to retrocede some of this territory in the framework of a broader agreement that will favour the regime and likely see Iranian influence further expand.

Trump’s public statement thus largely undermines efforts to reassure Kurds as to Washington’s resolve to remain in Syria and support the SDF in case of a pro-regime attack, as was the case in Deir ez-Zor in February this year, when the US air force killed hundreds of pro-regime fighters as they tried to seize a strategic energy facility . To be sure, it is possible that Trump is taking issue with the cost of US support to the SDF (both in terms of military presence and reconstruction) rather than with the policy itself. In this context, the US statement comes days after a meeting between Trump and MbS, during which the former reportedly insisted on how “rich” Riyadh was and which resembles other attempts by Trump to ensure that Washington’s allies share the cost of their foreign policies more equitably.

Yet, regardless of the reasoning behind the statement, the public contradiction of multiple US commitments (mostly by Pentagon officials) regarding Washington’s resolve to stay in Syria, including most recently in the wake of Turkish calls for the US to halve its support for the SDF, will undermine Washington’s strategy. The statement will embolden Turkey and Iran, which both have, for different reasons, an interest in undermining US support for the Kurds. When it comes to the latter, Tehran will likely more aggressively pursue its two-pronged strategy of both threatening the Kurds with an offensive and, on the other hand, offering a potential deal to return “disputed territories” in exchange for some form of limited autonomy. Pro-regime forces may also react to Trump’s comment by amassing near the frontline with the SDF in eastern Syria and possibly staging further attacks.

Turkey will also likely see the statement as a sign that the US commitment to its proxy on the ground is waning. Ankara is still discussing a possible settlement with Washington over the Kurdish issue amid persistent threats to stage an offensive against the SDF in both Manbij and along the remaining area south of Turkey’s border that is still in the hands of the Kurdish-led coalition. There have been few signs that these negotiations are seeing any success and Trump’s comment will certainly be seen by Ankara as a reason against compromising, given that it suggests that the president himself is looking to put an end to US support for the SDF. If Turkey and Washington do not manage to agree on a SDF withdrawal from the aforementioned areas in Syria, the former is liable to resort to more aggressive tactics. This is particularly the case if other US partners, such as France, were to step in in an effort to deter Turkish actions, as the French President indicated that its soldiers may be deployed to Manbij - in what could further be a response to Trump’s efforts to share the burden of the Syrian conflict. Despite Paris’ commitment, Ankara will likely still assess that the SDF is losing one of its key allies on the ground and act even more aggressively to secure concessions or accelerate the departure of forces belonging to the US-led anti-IS coalition.

In this context, while the perpetrators are still unidentified, this week’s unprecedented IED attack in Manbij that killed coalition forces serves as a warning that the situation in Arab-populated areas controlled by the Kurdish-led coalition could deteriorate. In light of Turkey’s own interest in such an attack, which may have aimed to demonstrate the fragility of the US and Kurdish presence in Manbij, it should not be ruled out that Ankara would encourage such an incident. Regardless, and although other groups, including IS, could be behind the attack, it does further underscore efforts to deter Washington from remaining in Syria, efforts that will be bolstered by Trump’s own remarks.

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