Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1424, (3 - 9 JANUARY 2019)

Ahram Weekly

A strategic rethink needed

Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria without advance coordination with longstanding partners is a betrayal of Arab allies and could be a game changer, writes Hussein Haridy

A couple of weeks ago, US President Donald Trump said the only interest left for the United States in the Middle East is Israel and its security. The statement was startling for a great power, like the United States, which has been actively involved in the region in the post-World War era. But with the rise of isolationism in American foreign policy under Trump, the statement made sense, at least theoretically.

Later, President Trump took the world by almost complete surprise in announcing, on Wednesday 19 December, the withdrawal of 2,000 American soldiers assisting and advising the Syrian Democratic Forces  — a force composed of Syrian Kurds and some Arabs — in their fight against the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) group in Syria. These forces have been credited for leading the military campaign to root out this terror group in Syria.

Even though President Trump said that the mission of defeating the Islamic State group has been accomplished, the estimates of military commanders on the ground differ. According to them, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 IS fighters in the eastern and northern parts of Syria. The presence of American forces was not only to provide military assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces, but also to help in what has been called “stabilisation” plans. The main objective of these plans has been to prevent the re-emergence of IS, once defeated.

According to American and Western diplomats and military leaders, such as former US secretary of defense General James Mattis, the overall mission — be it the total defeat and degradation of IS and its resources, or the stabilisation plans — has not been fulfilled.

General Mattis resigned, and wrote in his letter of resignation that was made public on Thursday, 20 December, that President Trump has the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are “better aligned” with his on “these and other subjects”. The date of his official departure is fixed at 28 February 2019.

The US president, angered by wide coverage of the resignation of General Mattis and the positive reactions afforded to the US general, decided to end the tenure of Mattis effective 1 January 2019, and appointed his former deputy at the Pentagon as acting secretary of defense.

In a surprise visit to US forces in Iraq, and accompanied by America’s First Lady, President Trump addressed troops and chastised American generals. He said that the military commanders asked “again” for time. He refused, telling them that they “can’t have any more time. You have had enough time. We have knocked them [the fighters of IS] out.”

On Christmas Day, the US president told a group of reporters in the Oval Office that, “right now we are the policemen of the world and we are paying for it. And we can be the policeman of the world, but other countries have to help us.” One must suppose he meant financially. On the other hand, he tweeted later that General Mattis had failed to see any problems with the United States, “substantially subsidising the Militaries of many very rich countries all over the world, while at the same time, these countries take total advantage of the United States and our Taxpayers on Trade.”

In his letter of resignation, General Mattis said that “American strength is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” And while the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, “we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

It is difficult to argue that the US administration in taking this decision showed a minimum of respect for its allies and partners, most of them members in the International Coalition against IS. Let alone the fact that the Syrian Democratic Forces found themselves without credible military assistance to help them keep the pressure on against the remnants of IS. 

From an Egyptian and an Arab perspective, the withdrawal of US forces has been coordinated with Turkey as President Trump said. In other words, and despite American-Arab alliance and partnership, the White House outsourced the mission of eradicating IS to Turkey, the very country that facilitated directly and indirectly the geographic expansion of IS in both Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014, respectively. 

In normal times, the withdrawal of US forces from Syria should have been coordinated with Arab countries, some of them very close allies of the United States. To conduct such coordination with a regional power occupying the northern part of Syria, and showing no sign that it would withdraw its forces from Syria anytime soon, is a betrayal of Arab trust on the part of the United States.

A senior American official was quoted as saying that President Trump reiterated to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would remain in Syria long enough to ensure an orderly handover and help out logistically to eradicate “any territory still held by the Islamic State”. President Trump himself said that the Turkish president assured him that Turkey would fight IS to the end. A dubious promise, at best.

The American decision could prove to be a game changer in the Syrian drama if Arab countries show a certain amount of political will to get involved in plans to shape Syria’s future, and not to leave it to non-Arab powers, great and small.

Last Sunday, 29 December, the Russian foreign minister announced after talks with his Turkish counterpart in Moscow that Russia and Turkey would continue coordinating their efforts in light of the US withdrawal, in order to eradicate what he called the “terrorist threat” in Syria without specifying what he means by that threat. For instance, does Russia agree with the Turks that the Syrian Kurds are “terrorists”? 

The US withdrawal leaves some pertinent questions unanswered as to the future of terrorist groups operating in Syria, some of which benefit from Turkish largesse and protection. And these same groups do target Egypt and other Arab countries, like Libya, Tunisia and Iraq. Lately, the Algerians have grown apprehensive lest Algeria becomes the next target of these groups this year.

Hopefully, the next regular Arab summit in March will rethink Arab positions towards Syria that have prevailed from 2011 until now. Maybe it would be a good idea for the Arabs to turn a page. It is high time.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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