It is already well known that making policy decisions in the heat of events on impulse typically generates endless problems that are hard to manage later. Donald Trump’s announcement a little over a month ago that he would withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria because the Islamic State had already been defeated has created a huge mess from which the administration in Washington is having a hard time exiting.
The first results of the abrupt decision by Donald Trump to withdraw from Syria, which came from his gut and not from any serious analysis, were the resignations of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, special envoy to the region. From then on, a series of regional complications have continued and are pouring gasoline into situations that are inherently flammable.
Among the first reactions to Trump’s decision about the withdrawal was, undoubtedly, rejoicing in Turkey and Iran because of the possibility of occupying the vacuum left by U.S. troops in Syria. For Iran, it meant the possibility of maneuvering more comfortably in Syrian territory and extending its influence, while for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, nothing is more attractive than having the freedom in that territory to crush the Kurds, whom he considers allies of the Kurdish insurgency in his country. Apparently, Trump was not even aware of this, considering that, as of the end of December, he still expressed total confidence that Erdogan’s military would destroy the remaining Islamic State group strongholds. The Kurds, who have been strong allies, were not in his calculation. Of course, the Turkish president was delighted with this.
However, these Kurds make up a militia called the YPG that has been critical in destroying the Islamic State group in Syrian territory, side by side with U.S. troops. Terror began to spread among the Kurds in this border territory, since they still hoped to achieve at least a certain level of autonomy in the new arrangement to be established in Syria. So pressure from different pro-Kurdish fronts quickly began to manifest itself.
Furthermore, in Israel, Trump’s decision was bad news. It immediately raised red flags regarding the risk of Iranian advances close to Israel's northern border if the U.S. abandoned its military presence in the zone. Hence the visit to Jerusalem by National Security Advisor John Bolton to try to soothe the worried Israelis and talk with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the risks involved in the new situation. Pressure from the Israelis obviously influenced reconsideration of the issue.
All of this together has obliged Trump to back down, resorting to nuances and ambiguous statements to pull himself out of the mud: The withdrawal will not be immediate, it will be gradual, it will take four months, we still don’t know how long it will take. These have been, more or less, the latest statements from the resident of the White House on this matter. Even so, it turns out that things cannot be fixed easily. Erdogan is furious. He had already made military preparations for a crushing offensive against “Kurdish terrorist groups” in Syria and, therefore, has not stopped threatening and ranting against the confusion in Trump’s administration, which says one thing and then the other.
So the new policy guidelines in Washington with respect to Syria are that the troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria remains conditioned on the total defeat of the Islamic State group and that Turkey refrains from attacking Kurdish troops in the area. The official line is that there is no time limit for the withdrawal, but neither are they in agreement with a permanent military presence. Nevertheless, and to calm the worried Sunni allies of the U.S., who are fearful of how the U.S. troop withdrawal will benefit Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a tour through Egypt and six Gulf states. Oh, what somersaults the Trump team has to perform to escape the dangerous regional mess resulting from the gut instincts of their boss!