After his conversation on December 14th with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump announced that he was pulling American troops out of Syria. That decision caused shock on both sides of the American political aisle, and it prompted the resignation of the much-admired Secretary of Defense James Mattis. It also sent a shudder through the Syrian Kurdish forces who have led the fight against ISIS in Syria. The concern expressed by all was that the vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal would allow Syria’s President Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, to retake Kurdish territory on Syria’s border with Turkey. It would put the Kurds at risk of being slaughtered by Turkish forces, as Turkey had promised. And it would likely give ISIS an opportunity to reorganize and re-energize its forces in the area. A Yazidi rights organization expressed concern that the U.S. absence would also create an existential threat for Syrian minorities.
The strategic interests of powers in the region are complex and competing. The New York Times explained: “Russia would like to see Mr. Assad regain control of Syria’s oil reserves to help finance the country’s reconstruction, while Iran wants to geographically connect forces it supports in Syria and Lebanon with those in Iraq.” In addition, Turkey’s president Erdogan feels the threat of the desire for independence by the Kurds in Turkey, and he is determined to eliminate their connection to any Kurdish groups outside the country. The U.S. administration’s clumsy handling of this complex balance of power has not helped. On the contrary — it’s added to the chaos.
Following Trump’s precipitous announcement and Mattis’ resignation, on December 28th the Syrian Kurds asked the Syrian government to protect them from Turkey, a U.S. ally. In response, on January 6th, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton announced that U.S. troops would not be leaving Syria after all — until ISIS is defeated and the U.S. ensures that Kurdish allies are protected.
Turkey’s president Erdogan reacted angrily to Bolton’s announcement and refused to meet with Bolton during his trip to Turkey. With heads everywhere spinning from the contradictions in stated U.S. Syrian policy, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly followed Bolton to the Middle East to assuage concerns. He announced: “The planned U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria does not change the mission of destroying ISIS and stopping Iran.”
If that sounded like a non sequitur to you, it did to many others as well. Quick summary: The U.S. CIA determined with confidence that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman organized the horrible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — but President Trump didn’t want to accept it, and has continued to support a brutal (Saudi) regime that sponsors much of the terrorist activity in the Middle East and elsewhere. Trump then announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, defying the advice of U.S. allies around the world, his own Defense Secretary and much of the U.S. Congress. The resulting chaos angered and concerned everyone, and Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew off to the Middle East to quiet the confusion and calm fears.
And then, as if on cue, Trump’s Secretary of State completely changed the topic of discussion. And as it so often does, it blamed Iran.