Syrian Withdrawal a Dangerous Regional Gambit

Donald Trump (White House via Flickr)

by Emile Nakhleh

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border and the ensuing Turkish offensive against the Kurds have thrown the Levant and the wider region into a deadly spiral of chaos and mayhem. Despite U.S. and European threats of crippling sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated that his military offensive in Syria will continue. The Kurdish forces that have fought the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) alongside American troops feel abandoned by the Trump administration and find Trump’s action inexplicable.

Regardless of whether Trump backtracks on his withdrawal decision and even whether he punishes Turkey for its new Syrian offensive, the damage to U.S. prestige and credibility in the region has already been done. Nations in the region view America’s abandonment of its Kurdish allies as an act of short-sightedness, untrustworthiness, expediency, undependability, fickleness, disloyalty, and vacillation. The president’s claim that his decision comports with his desire to stop U.S. involvement in “endless wars” rings hollow, especially as he continues to support Saudi Arabia in its savage war in Yemen. The Kurdish forces have accused the Trump administration of betrayal and have now joined forces with the Assad regime.

The fight against ISIS, which the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces spearheaded and for which they paid dearly in life and treasure, is far from over. The United States worked closely Kurdish forces and often provided them with safe zones against potential attacks by the Turkish military. Thanks to Trump’s decision, Erdogan believes he is free to attack the Kurds in Syria without accountability to Washington. He felt vindicated by President Trump’s initial tepid response to the first day of Turkey’s offensive. If the U.S. Congress passes severe sanctions against Turkey, and if the president approves them, Turkey will be forced to alter its regional calculus despite Erdogan’s public bravado. Once more the region will be thrown in the throes of war.

Beyond Syria, the decision to withdraw is creating a set of dangerous unintended consequences for the peoples of the region and for U.S. long-term interests in that part of the world. President Trump claims that the Middle East is not as critical for U.S. interests as it used to be. ISIS, al-Qaeda, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are ready to expand and execute their game plan. American leadership is at stake.

Emboldened Autocrats

Without America’s watchful eye, the brotherhood of autocrats in the region and the band of corrupt autocrats and regimes—including, among others, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa, and the militaries in Sudan and Algeria—can stay the course of corruption and repression without interference from Washington.

Ongoing street protests across several Arab countries—from Sudan to Algeria and from Egypt to Iraq—are once again demanding their governments and regimes end corruption and repression. Thousands of protesters and pro-democracy and human rights advocates have been arrested and are languishing in Saudi, Egyptian, Bahraini, Iraqi, and Algerian jails without due process. As Arab dictators no longer perceive the defense of human rights as a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy, they proceed to suppress their peoples’ demands for justice, freedom, and dignity without fear of retribution from Washington and other Western capitals.

Autocratic leaders have resorted to tribal, country-driven nationalism to mobilize regime supporters against regime opponents and pro-democracy and human rights dissidents, whom they call “enemies of the state.” Many of these regimes, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have emphasized the concept of wataniyya, to mean local, exceptional, and exclusionary patriotism, as compared to the broader inclusive concept of Arab nationalism, or qawmiyya. 

Resurgence of Terrorism

The resurgence of ISIS in Syria has been largely thwarted by the presence of Kurdish fighters and by U.S. military strikes. If U.S. troops leave, Kurdish fighters will focus on repelling and surviving the Turkish military attacks. Fighting terrorism becomes totally incidental. Furthermore, as Turkish advances target the Kurds, terrorist groups will have unprecedented freedom to operate in those parts of Syria that are beyond the reach of the regime.

With such newfound operational freedom, terrorist groups would spread into Iraq and reopen the border between the two countries. As public protests in Iraq turn to violence, the Iraqi government may become more preoccupied with street protests and spend fewer resources on fighting the terrorist resurgence in Iraq.

ISIS has already deep roots across northern Africa and the Sahel. Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates and its rebranded branches in Syria will get a new lease on life as well. The faltering Saudi war in Yemen against the Houthis has created opportunities for the resurgence of terrorist groups there—some of these groups have even been used by the Saudis in the fight against the Houthis.

When terrorist organizations conclude that Washington is surrendering its leadership in the region and will not send American troops to defend friendly regimes, they will become more adept and brazen at recruiting new followers and creating more lethal jihadists. If some regimes that are close to the Trump administration begin to wonder whether Washington will abandon them as it did the Kurds, the gathering threat of terror becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Middle Eastern regimes and governments that for years have relied on influential members of the United States Congress to protect their interests are no longer sure that their close relations with the United States would necessarily endure. Consequently, Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey, to name a few, will emerge as powerful political players and will present themselves as more dependable partners than Washington. Will these regimes be able to face the rising terrorist threat and the growing uncertainty of their relations with Washington?

From a strategic perspective, diplomatic, military, and national security collaboration between some of these countries and the United States will also suffer as these states engage in a reassessment of their traditional alliances. Vladimir Putin’s Russia will likely, or even certainly, emerge as the winner from the murkiness that follows. In recent years, Russia has played a dangerous game to destabilize Western democracies. Now it has the chance to destabilize Arab autocracies under the guise of being a more reliable ally.

Despite the ensuing chaos, it is possible to discern a couple of potentially positive developments from the withdrawal debacle. First, some Middle Eastern regimes might seriously begin to explore the possibility of rapprochement with their neighbors. Saudi Arabia may reach out to Iran to de-escalate tensions and end the war in Yemen. MbS also might seek ways to make peace with Qatar, a fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member, and end his reckless and unsuccessful blockade against it. MbS could also engage his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, MbZ, to establish an acceptable government structure both in Yemen and in Libya.

Second, the continuing street protests across the region demanding a better economic life and an end to regime corruption might force regimes and governments to rethink their relations with their people, with an eye toward more equitable economic and social policies. If these regimes can no longer rely on outside support to maintain their hold on power, they might finally come back to their people for advice. Inclusion—regardless of race, sect, ethnicity, or gender—could emerge as the only sure policy for stable societies in these countries. A pipe dream, perhaps.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Dr. Nakhleh

    US has been only prolonging the agony of Syria, it is best that she is gone.

    The choice is not between Democracy and Autocracy – it is between Sane Muslims and the Jihadists and their enablers, sympathizers and fellow-travelers.

    War has now separated the Shia of Ali and their allies from the rest of the Muslim World.

    That is the enduring legacy of the wars in Iraq and in Syria.

  2. Dr. Nakhleh, Has Turkey decided to go all in with Islam? The Ertogan intention to recreate in modern form the Ottoman empire (or at least some of it’s regional influence); how much and in what form of today’s Islam is Turkey comfortable with? Having been the essential facilitator for the ISIS phenomena, how far along that Jihadi path is Ertogan and Turkey prepared to go. With what consequences for Turkey, and the region? Just as important, whose version of Islam? As the article says, the Sunni-Shia schism seems far from resolution and potentially still quite violent.

  3. Erdogan’s Turkey has no longer the blessings of anyone. He was desperate to prove that he is strong. He had two days. Big deal. Now the Russians, and eventually a UN force, will keep the Kurds free.

    So for the Kurds, this is a blessing in disguise. The case for an independent secular Kurdistan amongst religious fanaticism is now clear. A greater Kurdistan will rise and flourish.

    There was a time, when the US was being blamed by many here in this forum, for all the ills in the Middle East. Who are they going to blame now. The Russians? Lol.

    In fact the Russian Islamic states will now show quite a resistance to Moscow, as it will try to fight the Islamic terrorists in its own land. Will we see Moscow get rattled by bombs? Will there be a 9/11 there? The Lions of Chechnya are preparing. What will Mr Putin do?

    Meanwhile Trump will just sit back and watch the show and say, “now it is your turn Vladimir. You take care of this Islamic mess. We American Christians have had enough. Let’s see how you Russian Christians take care of these madmen. Go for it!”

  4. @ “President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border and the ensuing Turkish offensive against the Kurds have thrown the Levant and the wider region into a deadly spiral of chaos and mayhem.”

    In my view, that’s a gross misreading of the situation. Consider:

    * Only in the wildest of right-wing Israeli dreams was there ever going to be a Rojava Kurdistan. Turkey would never allow it, even should the Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian governments permit it, which they would not.

    * U.S., UK, and French forces are evacuating from northern Syria.

    * The Kurds, no longer having a choice, have cut a deal with the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Army is quickly streaming its forces into northern Syria to block the Turkish invasion in an alliance with the Kurdish forces. The Kurds have also agreed to cede all of the energy sources and infrastructure (gas, oil) to the central government.

    * Russia has commanded that Syria’s borders will be respected but will not fight Turkey at this point.

    * Erdogan says that he only wants the Kurdish threat to Turkey removed and the Syrian refugees in Turkey returned to Syria. Moving the Syrian troops to the border grants Erdogan half of that wish. The refugee situation will be negotiated. For the next couple of weeks or so, Erdogan will likely maintain the pressure on the Kurds so that they do not get the urge to renege on their deal with the Syrian government. Once the Syrian Arab Army is in position along the Syrian border, blocking the Kurds from attacking Turkey, Erdogan will have no reason to continue his invasion.

    * The Kurds, no longer having a choice, have cut a deal with the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Army is quickly streaming its forces into northern Syria to block the Turkish invasion. The Kurds have also agreed to cede all of the energy sources and infrastructure (gas, oil) to the central government, providing energy and revenue drastically needed for Syria’s reconstruction.

    * About two weeks ago, Syria and Iraq opened new al Qaim border crossing between the two countries that enables transportation and shipping among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. That destroys the utility to the U.S. of maintaining its blocking force at the al Tanf crossing. With the Kurdish forces now united with the Syrian Arab Army, the U.S. will not be able to maintain its position at al Tanf without American reinforcements. In my opinion, Trump is more likely to retreat from Syria entirely than to send reinforcements to hold an area that no longer serves the U.S. purpose of preventing land transportation across what Israel calls the “Shia Crescent.)

    * Russian military police have moved into position in the Manjib area to keep the Turks and Syrian/Kurdish forces separated.

    * All of this perfect aligning of interests bears the unmistakable scent of Russian Grand Master foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia, not Trump, is now calling the shots in Syria.

    All of the above looks to me like the birth of peace in Syria, not a regional “deadly spiral of chaos and mayhem.”

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