Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria, a controversial decision

Saturday, 2018-12-22 12:45:19
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US soldiers take part in a combined joint patrol in Manbij, Syria on Nov. 1, 2018.
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NDO – President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to pull all US military forces out of Syria has caused mixed reactions from inside the US administration to its allies joining the coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). The question is what is the US reckoning through its sudden withdrawal of troops as the anti-IS war in Syria is said to be gradually coming to an end?

President Trump stated that the doomsday of the IS in Syria has arrived, which explains his decision to bring US soldiers back home, however, immediately following, a lot of doubts have emerged. After this decision was issued by the White House, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis submitted his resignation, a move deemed by analysts to stem from deep disagreements between President Trump and the Pentagon chief on various issues, including the strategies on the Syrian battlefield. Many MPs, including Republicans and US defence officials voiced their protests against the President’s decision.

Most criticisms emphasised that the troop pull-out could affect the field situation, creating abnormal geopolitical branches and undermining the role and influence of the US in the Middle East. Even the US commanders in the field were also concerned about the decision, because recently, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the US would need a long period of time to be able to train local forces in Syria to prevent the resurgence of IS. In fact, the IS has lost ground and much of their previously-controlled territories in Syria, but there are potential risks of this extremist organisation “resurging” at any time. The IS has shrunk into underground operations which are scattered in different areas. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is regarded as an ally of President Trump, also saw the troop withdrawal as a “reckless” decision, while Senator Marco Rubio judged it as a “big mistake”, leaving serious consequences beyond the framework of the war against the IS.

Key US allies, such as the UK and France, were surprised by President Trump’s decision to pull military forces out of Syria. The UK Foreign Ministry said that the IS is still a threat, although the force may not occupy any territory in Syria. London affirmed that it would continue to cooperate with the members of the coalition. France also announced its continued presence in the military alliance against the IS in Syria.

One of the problems raised after the US’s troop withdrawal is whether the Kurdish forces in Syria, who have received strong support from Washington, will fall into the situation of being “abandoned” by the US. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) warned that the US’s decision to withdraw all military forces would create an opportunity for the IS to “revive”. Democratic Senator Jack Reed even criticised this decision as a “betrayal” of the Kurdish people. The fate of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance between the Kurdish and Arab militias, has fallen into uncertainty. The alliance listed as terrorists by Turkey is facing threats from Ankara as Turkey recently announced it could launch a military campaign in Syria at any time.

In that context, doubts have emerged concerning the “handshake” between President Trump and Turkey. Washington’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria was welcomed by Ankara. The US and Turkey had experienced a long period of tensions due to disagreements related to the Kurds in Syria. Therefore, the new move is said to be a “positive answer” from the Trump administration. Not to mention, only a few hours before the public announcement of the decision to withdraw troops, the US Department of State said that Washington has approved the sale of the US$3.5 billion Patriot missile defence system to Turkey.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops can be seen as an unexpected turning point in Washington’s policy on Syria, looking at the public presence of about 2,000 US military personnel in eastern Syria to coordinate local forces to fight the IS. However, there were moves from President Trump to foretell his decision, as the White House boss once mentioned the possibility of withdrawing US forces from Syria soon, on the grounds that the US had wasted US$7,000 billion in the wars in the Middle East.

However, for US officials and MPs, the US moves in Syria need to be carefully considered, because they can harm the US’s interests, especially in the context of Russia increasingly showing its role of mastering the game in the Syrian cards.