History provides a blueprint of US future foreign policy in the Middle East. In 2011, former President Barack Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq. This led to reduced US presence and political influence in the country (and increased Iranian leverage), affecting Iraq’s political administration and military might.
During US presence in Iraq, billions of dollars were invested in the war, military aid and “democracy building”. According to the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble, Iraq was “considered relatively stable in 2011” – and though ISIS elements already existed, they developed fully into a unified force after Americans troops left. Despite an investment of $25 billion and eight years strengthening and equipping the Iraqi military, when IS entered Mosul in 2014 security forces quickly abandoned their weapons, ammunitions and other U.S. military equipments.
It is clear that the US withdrawal from Iraq came at the wrong time, exiting a country which was not ready to stand alone. What is less clear is how much President Trump’s policy will differ regarding US presence in Syria, where America plays many roles, from a buffer between the Kurds and other regional actors, to obstructing Iran’s expansion southward towards Israel.
The US Department of Defense budget provides an indication of US plans for Syria. The department has requested a large budget for its involvement in Syria, focusing on the defeat the Islamic State by training, equipping, sustaining and enabling the US-led coalition and Vetted Syrian Opposition forces to continue the advance against IS. The total budget for 2018 (fiscal year) for Iraq and Syria is $1.1769 billion, where $0.5 billion is allocated to Syria.
The US collaboration with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also signals continued US presence in Syria. The SDF is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition of predominantly Kurdish fighters but also Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian fighters. They have managed to push back the Islamic State and are America’s most successful ally in Syria.
In the eyes of the Turkish government, the SDF – composed of the Peoples Protection Unit and Women’s Protection Units, and affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – is a terrorist operation. The PKK is labeled as such by Turkey, the US and NATO. But the Trump administration has approved a plan to arm the Kurds in Syria, infuriating Turkey. To make matters worse for Turkey, US troops have patrolled between the region where the SDF controls, Rojava and the Turkish border. This is after constant Turkish airstrikes on the SDF strongholds, which have killed many fighters.
America’s rocky relationship with Turkey is another reason for the US to stay in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s is slowly pivoting towards Russia, and Turkey was also criticized for exposing US military secrets: this summer their government news agency Anadolu Agency publicly revealed the locations of 10 military bases and outposts in northern Syria. AA even listed the number of US and French troops in specific military outposts. It is evident the US can no longer rely on Turkey’s support.
Perhaps the most important determinant of US foreign policy in Syria is the fate of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US has distanced itself from directly fighting against the Syrian regime, instead focusing on the defeat of IS. This is despite the confirmation of repeated use of chemical weapons in the war by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
But the US will eventually have to face the Syrian regime. Assad has the support of Russia, a major military power in the country – and so US future intentions with Assad will probably involve Russia. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in March 2017 that the US will have an active role in both Syria and Iraq long after the defeat of the Islamic State. Although the type of engagement remains unclear, it is unlikely that the US will allow Russia to gain a foothold in the rest of the country anytime soon.
Assad’s fate is still in the making. With half the population displaced or deceased, Syrians may not want Assad to remain in power. But the military wins of the regime have bolstered Assad’s position as President. The US might allow Assad to stay until an election takes place by making an agreement with Russia. A military effort against the regime is the least likely scenario, largely because the aim is to end to the conflict – and an intervention would likely cause more chaos in an already war torn country. Interestingly, in 2016 Russia also supposedly advised Assad to step down. The Russian Colonel-General Igor Sergun stated that Vladimir Putin believed “it was time for him [Assad] to step aside,”. This claim was later denied.
The United States and the Syrian regime share the common interest of eliminating non-state interests in the conflict, like the Islamic State. With that in mind, for the US it is beneficial that Assad remains in power until the end of the conflict and continues to eliminate non-state opposition. Nevertheless, the role of the regime in the war is messier than battling opposition forces and proxy warfares. Assad has facilitated an upsurge of Iranian and Hezbollah forces in the south of the country. This poses a threat to Israel, a close regional ally to the US. The Israeli government has recently conducted airstrikes against a Syrian military site linked to the production of chemical weapons and missiles to be used by Hezbollah.
How will the US proceed in Syria now? The Trump administration could decide to remain engaged and continue to back the Kurdish forces. In return, the US would stand a chance of strengthening its geopolitical and military position in the region while safeguarding its allies – the Kurds and Israel. But if Trump choses to follow the path of the Obama administration and packs up and leaves, he would risk leaving a vacuum waiting to be filled. This could push the Turks to continue their attacks on the SDF, and strengthen Assad, Russia and Iran – the opposite of the President’s rhetoric.