Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Why is President Trump suddenly in a rush to get out of Syria?
Could the answer to Trump’s abrupt announcement that, “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” – which left even White House aides scrambling to figure out what the President had in mind – lead us back to Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Pushback from security experts has apparently irritated the President but persuaded him for now to delay the withdrawal for the time being. At least that’s the most recent decision, subject to change by the mercurial President. But it’s worth exploring why Trump blindsided his advisers and America’s allies with a sudden push to withdraw.
It was never a secret that Trump wanted the US involvement in Syria to be limited to defeating ISIS, but the urgency — “Very soon – very soon we’re coming out,” he said in Ohio – was unexpected.
Recall that a couple of weeks ago, Trump made a controversial call to the Russian President, congratulating Putin on his re-election victory in Russia’s patently-undemocratic election, ignoring the all-caps “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” guidance in his briefing materials, and failing to mention the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK despite the massive diplomatic crisis it triggered.
Well, the two leaders discussed another topic that day, but, as far as the White House was concerned, you wouldn’t have known it.
Curiously, the White House readout of the conversation did not mention Syria. But the Kremlin had its own summary of the chat. It noted that, “The problem of Syria was discussed,” and “There was recognition on both sides of the need to make rapid strides toward achieving settlements.”
The following week, during a speech in Ohio, Trump dropped the bombshell that it is time for America’s small but crucial 2,000-troop force to leave Syria. Since then, he has reasserted several times his intention to pull out of Syria quickly, despite a barrage of warnings and criticism from friends and foes, along with reports from unnamed administration officials who say the move would be damaging to US interests, dangerous for US allies – and beneficial to Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Republican Sen Lindsey Graham said pulling out of Syria would be “the single worst decision the president could make,” calling the idea “a disaster in the making.” Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono called Trump’s Syria policy “incoherent.”
Critics said a withdrawal now would allow ISIS to reemerge. More to the point, it would create a vacuum that would be quickly filled by Russia, Iran and Turkey. It would prove devastating to America’s friends, the Kurds and Arabs fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and it would put Israel and Saudi Arabia on a collision course with Iran.
Perhaps it was a coincidence that Trump announced his intention to withdraw just in time for the summit meeting of the three countries that today control that future of Syria. This week, Putin met in Ankara with the presidents of Iran and Turkey to plan for Syria’s future. The world’s sole superpower (the US, in case you were wondering) was not represented. (Neither was Syria.)
The impulse to get out too quickly is particularly intriguing because it risks replicating some of the moves over which Trump as a candidate ridiculed President Obama, and it would run counter to Trump’s own stated policy on Iran.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly called Obama the “founder of ISIS.” The statement was red meat to Obama haters. He perversely refused to explain what he meant, but at last, under pressure, he explained that Obama got out of Iraq too soon, and “that was the founding of ISIS, OK?”
Strategists now warn that withdrawing from Syria would allow a not-completely-destroyed ISIS to reconstitute.
Trump also mocked Obama for announcing when US troops would wrap up their missions. “I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is,” he said, “This is what Obama does.” Trump has talked in a White House meeting about a deadline of six months for withdrawal from Syria, although according to a senior US general, Trump has not laid out a specific timeline for the military to do so. An administration official told CNN, “The President blasted Obama for a timeline in Iraq, but that is in essence what we have been given.”
Whether or not it was Putin who prompted Trump to accelerate America’s withdrawal, Syria presents a unique dilemma for the President. From the days of the campaign, he decried previous presidents’ costly engagements in the Middle East. But his foreign policy has other key elements. Trump has vowed to reverse Obama’s policies on Iran, vowing to curb Tehran’s power. Moving out of Syria would strengthen Tehran in a way that is in stark conflict with his stated objectives.
Trump declared that the US has “neglected Iran’s steady expansion of proxy forces…in hopes of dominating the greater Middle East,” noting that Tehran wants “to establish a bridge from Iran to Lebanon and Syria.”
If the US withdraws before its Syrian allies are strong enough, Iran will immediately establish that Tehran-Damascus land bridge that Trump himself warned about. Iran would cement its power in Syria and Lebanon. That would make the Middle East even more unstable, with Iran at Israel’s doorstep and Saudi Arabia’s tension with Iran greatly magnified.
So, Trump has a dilemma. There’s his “America First” instinct to step back from the Middle East and bring the troops home (an instinct that, incidentally, is not unlike Obama’s). And then, there is his commitment to deter Iran from escalating its strength in the region.
He can bring the troops home or he can deter Iran. Which will it be?
The answer to Trump’s dilemma may be found in Moscow. That’s because a quick US withdrawal aligns with Putin’s objectives. The Kremlin’s foreign policy in recent years has consisted in large part of moving in where the US moves out. Russia has become the great power broker in Syria. The sooner Trump pulls out the troops, the easier it is for Putin to flex his muscle in shaping the region to his liking.
The question remains, how much is Putin shaping US foreign policy?