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US pullback from Syria is a terrible idea

Kersten Knipp / DW Share:
A boy holds a tray of cookies in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria. Reuters

Donald Trump has said he wants the US military out of Syria. That would be a fatal misstep, writes Kersten Knipp. The US president would be handing the region over to players that would create even greater chaos.

Whatever you may say about US President Donald Trump, he knows how to leave observers guessing. His latest foreign policy rumination was to pull American troops out of Syria.

The statement came just days after John Bolton’s appointment to the role of national security adviser and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo to secretary of state. Neither man is known for dovish diplomacy; to the contrary, they stand for robust foreign policy, including use of military force. How do their joining the Trump administration square with the idea to pull US troops and advisers out of Syria?

More than 1,500 people have been killed since Syrian government troops backed by Russia launched a ferocious attack on eastern Ghouta on February 18. Airstrikes have reduced much of the area near Damascus to ruins. According to the UN, there were an estimated 400,000 people trapped inside the besieged enclave without access to food and water when the offensive began.

It would not be wrong to chalk up the president’s statements on the Syrian situation to mere spontaneity, which ultimately does not lead to actual troop withdrawal. If that were the case, it would be an admission that the United States’ policy on Syria was lazily formulated.

But above all else, it would render US policy for the region broadly meaningless, much to the region’s detriment and unlike in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq on the basis of blatant lies, wreaking havoc on Iraq and beyond.

Sure, the US never had particularly good relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime. It would have gladly seen the end to both father and son given both Assads’ closeness to America’s major regional foe, Iran, and their hostility toward America’s major regional ally, Israel.

The US has been trying to get rid of the younger Assad, the butcher of his people, for seven years, but to no avail. Should the US have more strongly intervened? Should it have stayed out altogether, much as what of course should have been the case with other relevant actors, such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia? There is no way to know; the insurgency could have taken too many paths depending on the circumstances.

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to many civilians.

What can be said is that a US pullback at this time would seal the fate of not only Syria, but the whole region, for decades to come. In all likelihood, it would lead to Russia’s dominance, however discreet. Less discreet would be Iran’s dominance over large swaths of Syria, through Lebanon to the border with Israel. The ‘Shiite Crescent’ would become a stark reality.

The hardline domestic agenda of Tehran’s mullahs along with their involvement in Syria demonstrate just how ruthlessly intent they are to see their regional interests carried out. Those interests are economic, but more so in the interest of propaganda, in particular against Israel, at a time when Israel can silence protests in Gaza with deadly force.

The consequences of US withdrawal would be a triumphant Iran, which could push the region to the brink of wider war. Mr Trump’s announcement was correct in admitting that the US achieved little else in Syria than successfully combating the so-called Islamic State. However, if the US were to withdraw, all signs point to an even bleaker outcome.

This commentary first appeared at http://www.dw.com

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