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Syria: What Trump is signaling to Mideast allies and foes about US priorities

a shift in thought

After an internal debate, the White House indicated a US exit from Syria is not imminent, but very much in the plans. Some analysts see Trump poised to pivot his focus, and military resources, to Asia, especially North Korea.

Syrian boys flash victory signs from the back of a pickup as they pass a US military vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, March 31, 2018.
Hussein Malla/AP
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Late last year Secretary of Defense James Mattis laid out the details of a plan that would see the United States remaining in Syria well into the future – after the defeat of the Islamic State.

The US would stick around and shift to a stabilization role to make sure ISIS did not come back, and to keep cards in the diplomatic game (a game that includes adversaries Russia and Iran) to find a political settlement to Syria’s civil war.

This week President Trump, who earlier had signed off on Secretary Mattis’s plan, sent a different message to his Pentagon chief: Not going to happen quite like that.

After declaring publicly and on two different occasions – one a campaign-type rally in Ohio last week – that he would be pulling US troops out of Syria “very soon,” Mr. Trump agreed at a White House meeting Tuesday to modify his timetable slightly while still nixing any grandiose plans for an extended US role in Syria.

The roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria will likely be out in a matter of months, White House officials said, while the US role in anything other than finishing the job against ISIS will be scaled back, not expanded.

Trump’s decision to abandon the expansive plan reflects a president reverting to his own instincts in the absence of a full-fledged national security team, national security analysts say.

Trump is going with his distaste for America’s never-ending Middle East wars – so often expressed during the 2016 campaign – while signaling something broader to America’s Middle East friends and foes alike.

Focus on North Korea

The message is that the US really is pulling back from the Middle East and reorienting its focus to Asia – and particularly, in the coming months, to North Korea.

What that means is that battle partners like the Syrian Kurds are about to be left on their own, analysts say, while allies from Saudi Arabia to Israel should prepare to do more for themselves in Syria, particularly about Iran’s aggressive posture in the region.

“This decision certainly reduces our leverage in Syria, but it sends a clear message or perhaps a reminder that the US wants out of the Middle East in general,” says Katherine Zimmerman, research manager of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “[President Barack] Obama started it,” she adds, “and Trump ran on it.”

Indeed, others see Trump balancing campaign promises to get the US out of Middle East wars and to compel allies to do more (and pay more) for their own security against a pledge to defeat ISIS. Also figuring in the president’s calculation is the need to marshal assets for a potential confrontation with North Korea, some add.

“President Trump wants to have his cake and eat it too, so I think getting out of Syria ‘very soon’ will be done in a way to make sure that the black spots ISIS was still holding until recently don’t turn black again, and to buy time to get our partners … to take up more of the responsibility” in Syria and to “take up more of the load” in confronting Iran, says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “In reality,” he adds, “there’s a good chance we’ll still have US forces in Syria a year from now.”

This photo provided Feb. 2, 2018, by the Syrian rebel group Army of Islam, shows one of its fighters firing his weapon during clashes with government forces in Housh al-Dhawahira in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, Syria.
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But at the same time, Trump’s insistence on a Syria drawdown also reflects a shift in focus to Asia and the North Korea challenge, he adds.

“The subtext to all of this is the president’s sense that the US already has a lot of military commitments around the world, and it may have another one coming up where it might need all its air power and special forces and other assets now involved in Syria,” Mr. Heras says. “The message is point blank: DPRK all day every day,” he says, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea.

Regional winners and losers

Yet whether Trump’s decision means US troops will be out of Syria within months or still on the ground in a year, the signal he is sending has been heard by the long list of players in the Syrian conflict and will have implications for regional winners and losers.

Among the winners, count Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that both Iran and Russia support. Also on the list: US NATO ally Turkey, which has chafed at US support for Syrian Kurds.

The leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey focused on Syria at a tripartite summit in Ankara Wednesday. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the US presence in Syria had only augmented the war-ravaged country’s “insecurity” even as the Americans had failed in their goal of toppling Mr. Assad.

Even Al Qaeda in Syria is a likely winner, says Ms. Zimmerman of AEI, as the terror group has been quietly regrouping as the US-led coalition has focused on defeating ISIS. “Al Qaeda in Syria is now one of the strongest affiliates Al Qaeda has globally,” she says. “This raises the risk it poses even more.”

As for the losers: At the top of the list sit the Kurds, whom the US turned to when it first went into Syria as the best ready-and-able ground partner in routing ISIS from its northern Syria strongholds. Also likely to feel abandoned is the Syrian Democratic Coalition, which Heras points out was the go-to local partner under the Mattis plan to administer and provide services and security for areas previously held by ISIS.

Also on the losing end of Trump’s decision to withdraw: Israel. As Israeli officials have made clear following word of US intentions, a US exit is sure to embolden Iran further and encourage its provocative actions toward Israel.

“Iran is still looking for ways to challenge Israel in western Syria,” a scenario that opens the way for an Israel that feels even more on its own to take preemptive action against Iran in Syria, Heras says. “It really raises the stakes if the Israelis decide they need to respond unilaterally in Syria,” he says.

Risk versus benefit

Still, some analysts say the quick jitters over Trump’s Syria decision are overblown – especially when the diminutive nature of the US deployment to Syria is considered.

“President Trump is right about getting out of Syria, there is very little benefit from keeping 2,000 troops there, but at the same time there is enormous strategic risk,” says Daniel Davis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and now military expert at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank that advocates a strict focus on traditional national security challenges and caution toward projection of military force.

Those troops have done their job in routing ISIS from its strongholds in Syria, he says, but now that the ISIS remnants have “evolved back into a traditional insurgent force,” there is little such a small deployment can do. “We are not going to accomplish anything with this tiny number of people,” says Mr. Davis, who underscores that even the 140,000 US troops who were in Afghanistan when he was deployed there did not lead to a Taliban defeat.

US officials estimate that ISIS has lost as much as 95 percent of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq.

As for Mattis’s plan to transition to a stabilization role in Syria and to stay on to press for a political settlement to the civil war, Davis says Trump is right to give it short shrift.

“I know well his [Mattis’s] strategy, but there is not one thing on his list that is attainable,” Davis says. “We need to get these guys out of there and refocus on our core national security. And when anyone comes up with these plans to have the military do things beyond that core purpose,” he adds, “the answer needs to be, ‘No, we can’t.’ ”

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