In a campaign rally in Minneapolis about 10 days ago, President Trump talked about his sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He said, “We don’t have any soldiers there because we left, we won, we left, take a victory United States,” he said. “Bring our troops back home.”
Yesterday, he repeated that theme on Twitter: “Mark Esperanto (sic), Secretary of Defense, ‘The ceasefire is holding up very nicely. There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds.’ USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!”
We need to parse that out a bit, because Trump’s good intentions aren’t causing good results.
It’s Sunday, three days into the ceasefire with Turkey. As the president tweeted, the ceasefire is generally holding up. But under the agreement, the Kurds are required to retreat from the 20-mile-deep “safe zone” Turkey is occupying in Syria. The Kurds are accusing the Turks of preventing them from leaving the zone as an excuse to resume fighting.
The Turks, the Russians, or Russia’s Syrian puppets will quickly secure the Syrian oil region, from which the Kurds are withdrawing.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan said if the Kurds don’t withdraw from the “safe zone” by Tuesday evening, when the ceasefire is scheduled to end, “we will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorists’ heads.”
Defense Secretary Esper announced that the 1,000 U.S. troops who had been serving in Syria in the war against ISIS weren’t going home. All of them are being redeployed to Iraq, and from there they will presumably continue the campaign against ISIS from a greater distance.
At the same time, Trump has sent another 1,500 U.S. troops and another Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia. They will stand in defense of further Iranian attacks against the Saudi oil infrastructure like the September 14 cruise missile and drone attack that temporarily knocked out a major Saudi oil processing facility.
The future of the endless war in the Middle East can’t be forecast completely, but much of it can be.
The American retreat from Syria and betrayal of our Kurdish allies didn’t bring our troops home, didn’t end the “endless wars” in the Middle East, and — most importantly — didn’t reduce the threats to our national security.
Turkey, as I have written repeatedly, is our adversary, not our ally. It will, at Russia’s sufferance, occupy a 20-mile broad section of Syria. That’s not the only place Erdogan is conducting military aggression.
Erdogan has been emboldened by Trump’s exit from Syria. While Russia has said that Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria is “unacceptable” and has moved Russian and Syrian forces close to where Turkish forces are located, Russia is — as usual — playing both sides.
Russia values the huge presence it — and Iran — has in Syria more than it values Turkey’s alliance with it and Iran in their 2016 treaty to protect the Assad regime. Russia won’t expel Turkish forces from northeastern Syria, but it won’t allow Erdogan to expand farther into Syria.
Russian President Putin’s hand has been strengthened considerably in the Middle East. He has stuck with his allies — Iran and Turkey — while we have abandoned the Kurds.
Meanwhile, Iran and Russia will do little or nothing to control the 10- to 12,000 ISIS fighters freed as the result of retreating U.S. and Kurdish forces. As former Defense Secretary James Mattis has said, we have to expect a major ISIS resurgence, further threatening the U.S. and Europe.
That’s consistent with Syria’s past and with both Russian and Iranian intent. From the 1970s on, Syria — under the late and unlamented Hafez al-Assad and then his son Bashar — has been a home base for many terrorist networks. Iran already has a major terrorist presence in Syria — its proxy, Hezbollah — which will continue to grow to threaten Israel.
Iran’s terrorist bases close to Israel’s Golan Heights have sufficiently threatened Israel to bring about Israeli air strikes against them. ISIS will quickly join Hezbollah there.
Except for the period in which former President Obama ordered our troops out of Iraq, we’ve been there since 2003. Iraq’s Shiite government is highly sympathetic to Iran and will not be an accommodating host to our troops there, even those intending to operate against ISIS in Syria. We should expect the Iraqi government to place demands on our forces that will cripple operations against ISIS in Syria.
Like Turkey and Russia, Iran is emboldened by our cutting and running from Syria. Iran, however, is smarter than Turkey. So far, it has kept the shield of plausible deniability over its aggression in directly confronting U.S. forces, with one striking exception.
In January 2016, Iran seized a U.S. naval patrol boat in international waters near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. After photographing the crew huddled in surrender — in effect parading them before the international media — they were released in about 15 hours. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry claimed victory in avoiding a conflict.
Iran continues to threaten closure of the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow entrance to and exit from the Persian Gulf — and has attacked tanker ships passing through the Gulf. Again, they plead innocence of the attacks. They have insisted that the September 14 attack against the Saudi oil facility wasn’t theirs.
The U.S. responded to neither the 2016 seizure of the Navy patrol boat nor the shoot-down of a U.S. drone flying over Iran earlier this year. Trump canceled a military response to the drone incident only 10 minutes before it was to occur because of the risk of Iranian casualties.
We have encouraged further Iranian aggression by not responding to either incident. We are teaching the Iranians how carefully they have to calibrate their attacks, and we have to expect they will continue to push the limits we have established. We have to expect further Iranian attacks on shipping, on Saudi territory, and on our unmanned reconnaissance systems.
Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah will also continue to test the Israelis’ tolerance of their aggressive presence in Syria. The Israelis are far less tolerant than we of Iran’s actions, but the Israelis’ unstable political situation renders unclear how far Iran can go.
Thus, the situation in Syria — caused by our retreat — has further destabilized the entire Middle East. Several pundits have compared our retreat from Syria to the “last helicopter” scene in Saigon, when U.S. forces and diplomats fled the North Vietnamese final assault on that city. That’s an exaggeration.
But if Trump decides to do in Afghanistan what he did in Syria, and when the last U.S. aircraft takes off from Kabul’s airport, then the last helicopter evacuating Saigon will be the right analogy.
As Churchill said after Dunkirk, wars aren’t won by evacuations.