26 December 2018

Sudden U.S. troop exit from Syria would exacerbate regional instability

President Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria reversed recent pledges by a wide range of senior administration officials to remain there indefinitely — including one just two weeks ago by his top Syria envoy, Ambassador James Jeffrey.

The big picture: Trump’s tweet and abrupt decision have taken key allies and many in his own administration by surprise. Aside from being based on a false premise — the Islamic State, or ISIS, is down in Syria, but not out — the decision could have major implications for Syria, the Middle East and broader U.S. foreign policy.

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The effects of a U.S. withdrawal will ripple across the region. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will see it as a sign the U.S. will not hinder his efforts to re-establish control over all of Syria. 

Washington’s Kurdish partners in Syria — who led the ground fight against ISIS at great cost — will feel betrayed and may see no choice but to accelerate negotiations to reconcile with the Assad regime. 

Turkey, which has been threatening to invade northern Syria to confront Kurdish rebels there, could take Trump’s decision as a green light to do so — potentially coming into conflict with both the Kurds and Assad. 

Israel and the Gulf states, which were counting on U.S. support in containing Iran’s regional influence, will be stunned by a decision that is hard to reconcile with the administration’s repeated claims that it has no higher priority than standing up to Tehran. 

The bottom line: As Brett McGurk, the State Department’s counter-ISIS Coordinator, said on Dec. 11, leaving Syria now on the pretense that the physical caliphate is defeated would be “reckless.” If Trump doesn’t reverse course — always a possibility — this sudden and poorly coordinated reversal could send a troubling signal about the U.S. foreign policymaking process and America’s reliability as a partner.

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