Mr. Trump startled his advisers by declaring at a rally last week that U.S. troops would “very soon” get out of the country. Now he has agreed they can stay long enough to complete the elimination of several pockets of Islamic State militants and to train local forces to police the large area controlled by U.S. allies.
That’s a welcome turnabout as far as it goes. Mr. Trump’s sudden embrace of a pullout was itself a reversal of a strategy for Syria he endorsed just a few months ago. Withdrawal now could allow the Islamic State to reconstitute itself, reversing the gains of years of hard fighting by U.S. and allied forces. Still, that is only one of the major U.S. interests at stake. The others include preventing Iran and Russia from entrenching in the country at the expense of U.S. allies including Israel and Jordan; preserving Turkey’s place as a NATO ally; and preventing more humanitarian catastrophes, with the resulting destabilizing waves of refugees headed for Europe.
Mr. Trump’s new position, which envisions a U.S. withdrawal in months and suspends the modest reconstruction aid recently allocated by the State Department, abdicates responsibility for those challenges. It also delivers a stab in the back to the Syrian forces, led by Kurds, who have collaborated with the United States in fighting the Islamic State and now could be left to deal alone with a Turkish regime irrationally bent on annihilating them.
That Mr. Trump’s intended retreat is a gift to Vladimir Putin perhaps should not be surprising, given Mr. Trump’s curious eagerness to accommodate the Russian ruler. But by boosting Iran at Israel’s expense, Mr. Trump is flagrantly undermining a central tenet of his foreign policy. Israel has said it cannot tolerate the presence of Iranian bases near its northern border, but a U.S. evacuation would remove one of the main obstacles to Tehran’s military expansion. The eventual result could be an Israeli-Iranian war that could devastate Syria, Lebanon and Israel itself.
Mr. Trump is not without arguments against a longer or deeper U.S. involvement in Syria; President Barack Obama also resisted engagement in “some
one else’s civil war.” But the Trump administration has the advantage of having seen the disastrous consequences of previous U.S. passivity; and Mr. Obama’s State Department did at least mount a vigorous diplomatic effort to end the bloodshed.
American diplomacy failed largely because the United States lacked leverage on the ground and so could not force other parties to bargain honestly or respect agreements. Now Mr. Trump has a powerful card in the form of de facto U.S. control over a quarter of Syria’s territory and most of its oil resources. But rather than use it to advance U.S. strategic aims, he proposes to walk away. There has been no discernible U.S. diplomatic activity; instead, Russia, Iran and Turkey have been meeting on their own to carve up Syria. “Let the other people take care of it now,” Mr. Trump said last week. He seems not to care that those “other people” are dedicated to harming American interests.