An alliance with the world’s most powerful nation would seem a prudent strategic choice for a party facing conflict. But ask the successive groups of governments, rebels, or militias who have taken Washington’s side in Syria eight yearlong civil war and they’ll tell you they miscalculated. On battlefields from Daraa to Deir ez-Zor, when push has come to shove, the US has shown itself to be a strictly fair-weather friend and actors across the region are taking notice.
Trump’s seemingly unplanned decision to remove US troops from Northern Syria, who have acted as a buffer between Turkey and US Kurdish allies, is just the latest, if not the most flagrant, demonstration of the fragility of American commitment to the region. The results are sure to be tragic. Just days after the announcement, Turkish troops have begun crossing the border into Syria, setting the stage for all-out conflict between a NATO ally and the Kurdish forces who have spent years fighting alongside US troops to dislodge the Islamic State. One can imagine the safety of remaining US troops in Kurdish controlled Syria might now be tenuous, as would Kurdish commitments to keep thousands of Islamic State fighters off the battlefield in SDF run prison camps.
The principal beneficiaries of US capriciousness have been America’s chief rivals – Iran, Russia, the Assad government, and, with this latest retreat, the Islamic State.
But it is only the sheer brazenness of Trump’s reversal that obscures what has become an American tradition of jilting friends and allies in Syria. In the early days of the country’s civil war, Obama’s ambiguous strategy that both voiced powerful backing for the opposition while rejecting intervention on its behalf created highly inflated expectations of US support on the part of anti-Assad forces. Half-hearted programs to arm and train Syrian rebels, which satisfied neither pro nor anti interventionists camps, sputtered, consuming hundreds of millions in cash and producing disenchanted and exasperated fighters, who saw a greater alignment of revolutionary ideals with groups like the Nusra Front than with the United States.
Beyond rebel groups, neighboring governments who also sought to align themselves with US Syria strategy found only a fitful series of actions that bred confusion and created dangerous security dilemmas. In an attempt to reflect the spirit of stated US policy, Jordan, Turkey, and Gulf Monarchies committed themselves to the Syrian opposition only to see American support, coordination, and leadership, quickly fade. Sensing that the US was now looking to keep the crisis at arm’s length, each went their separate ways, which often meant reaching accommodations with the Syrian government and its backers, Iran and Russia. Across the region, the perception that America had “abandoned” its friends in Syria kindled anxieties in the minds of US allies and delight in US adversaries, who interpreted the outcome as a signal of America’s wavering commitment and a blow to its credibility.
Accordingly, Jordan and the Gulf states have undertaken quiet efforts to revitalize ties with Damascus, while Turkey has become a key figure in the Russian led Astana process, a rival platform to UN managed peace efforts that have allowed Tehran and Moscow to drive the trajectory of the conflict since 2017. In the end, the message from Washington was clear and well-received – when it comes to Syria, look elsewhere for leadership.
The principal beneficiaries of US capriciousness have been America’s chief rivals – Iran, Russia, the Assad government, and, with this latest retreat, the Islamic State. A Kurdish military commander of the SDF has said explicitly that his forces who are now tasked with guarding Islamic State prisoners will be re-positioned to fight Turkey, while the Syrian Deputy Foreign minister has taken the opportunity to offer the Kurds an olive branch to realign with the Damascus government.
The original sin of convincing the Kurds to fight for the US despite the obvious ire it would draw from Turkey was committed long ago. Betraying them now would be cruel and imprudent. Moreover, cowing to demands of the Turkish government seems unnecessary. US defense planners had been successfully walking a fine line between Ankara and the Kurds that has steered the two away from conflict without sacrificing either ally. Trump may have inherited a legacy of abandoning partners in Syria but it’s not too late for him to use this opportunity to send a fresh signal to allies and adversaries in the region – the US will stand by its commitments, and won’t sacrifice friends so easily anymore.
Elias Yousif is a Program and Research Associate with the Security Assistance Monitor Program at the Center for International Policy, where he analyzes the impact of US arms transfer programs on international security and human rights. He was previously a Campaigns and Research officer with Crisis Action, both in DC and Beirut, where he worked on advocacy and policy proposals to improve civilian protection, humanitarian access, and conflict resolution in Syria.