On 19 December 2018, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria. The withdrawal from Syria will likely cede the region to Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as leaving the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) dominated — and US-allied — Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in a compromised position. That this announcement was swiftly followed by the resignation of Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, demonstrates the unilateral nature of this decision. This withdrawal, somewhat tempered since the initial announcement, exposes an alarming truth — the US Executive branch cannot be trusted to behave consistently.
Putting aside the legality of the US Coalition’s presence in Syria, the decision to withdraw demonstrates some fundamental and uncomfortable truths.
Firstly, in relation to foreign policy, the US Executive branch enjoys a prerogative that is much too vast, particularly regarding terrorism. Congress has historically deferred to the Executive branch in matters concerning foreign policy and national emergencies. This deference was further bolstered by the events of 9/11 and the characterisation of transnational terrorism as a global threat. This Congressional courtesy was predicated on the assumption that the Executive branch would be headed by a decisive, experienced, and competent President. Donald Trump in this latest decision, as well as others, illustrates that he possesses no such characteristics.
Trump’s contradictory declarations – ‘ISIS is defeated’ and that conversely, the likes of Turkey, Russia and Iran will pick up the mantle and ultimately ensure the final defeat of the terror group — illustrates a lack of foresight, basic geopolitical knowledge, and historical memory. Trump has previously declared that ‘I know more about ISIS than the Generals do’. True to his conceited statement, Trump did not appear to consult with leading US Generals, allies or his soon to be former Secretary of Defence, James Mattis. Decisions such as these contain the seed of serious blowback. A similar declaration, ‘mission accomplished’ by former President George Bush Jr, displayed an alarming strategic conceit and lack of foresight which would ultimately only come to haunt Washington.
To further complicate matters, Trump has assured us that Turkey — in conjunction with Russia and Iran — will play a key role in the region despite its long-standing tensions with the Syrian Kurds and to a lesser extent, the al-Assad regime. However, Turkey’s complicated history of conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) whom Ankara alleges are linked to the YPG, will lessen Turkish resolve to confront ISIS. This further illustrates this President’s lack of political awareness.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey all have competing agendas in the Syrian conflict, and ISIS is not necessarily the highest priority for either party. This is a point that the President has been made aware ofand chosen to disregard. After all, as he assures us, Trump knows more than ‘the generals’. History shows that policies based on unfounded assumptions, incomplete information, and decisions divorced from geopolitical realities have consequences —many of which have proved dire for American interests in the same region. Military experts like Mattis know this all too well.
Thirdly, in international relations just as in any relationship, you are only as good as your word. This recent decision continues a trend of disdain for regional allies — NATO having borne the brunt thus far —and seeming preference for autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia and Erdoğan of Turkey. Alliances are founded on respect, honouring one’s commitments and an eye to the strategic implications of policy decisions. The ‘shining city upon the hill’, a long-held truism particularly of Republican administrations, envisioned a Washington that was shrewd but generous — an example to its allies and a moral challenge to its adversaries. Trump’s combative stance with allies, while seemingly giving ground to adversaries, not only goes against this creed but actively harms the credibility of the US and its global leadership position.
Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria indicates an unpredictable and chaotic policy environment within the White House. Decisions are made without due consideration for allies and the geopolitical context, consultation with experts or other branches of government. The Kurdish YPG, instrumental in the fight against ISIS, was shown the door — straight to Damascus and Moscow.
US norms, such as respecting one’s allies, multilateral decision-making, and prudence when dealing with adversaries like Russia, once thought uncontroversial, can no longer be relied upon. What we are witnessing is the full potential of a US Executive that faces little political and legal constraints in foreign policy and now, with Mattis’ departure, one less expert to guide the sinking ship. Allies – non-State and State alike – must re-evaluate their relationship with the US when it comes to security arrangements. If the isolationist and unilateral streak within US foreign policy outlasts Trump, this will be true of not just the current administration, but indeed all future administrations.
Nyibeny Naam recently graduated from Sydney University with a Masters of International Law degree.