On Wednesday 19 December, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his plan to withdraw all 2,000 American troops from Syria over the next 100 days, Al Jazeera reports. Initially, his justification for this sudden decision was the alleged defeat of ISIL. Yet, just 24 hours later, he changed his reasoning, citing monetary concerns and the protection of U.S. soldiers as the motivating factors, states The Guardian.
This decision has shocked the world and amassed diverse responses from allies and adversaries alike. It has primarily drawn criticism, especially from within Trump’s own government. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned the day after the announcement due to misalignment of his and Trump’s views, while other Republican allies called it a “huge mistake,” The Telegraph reports. The Pentagon and State Department are also disapproving, and for months have warned Trump that the fight against ISIL is far from over, writes The Washington Post. This sentiment was echoed by the British government, with defense minister Tobias Ellwood asserting that ISIL “has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.” However, others have applauded Trump’s announcement. Despite continually strained U.S.-Russia relations, President Vladimir Putin approved of the decision, stating that American troops are not needed in Syria, The New York Times writes. Likewise, other political voices believe that American troops– directed by the Obama administration- should have never entered the Syrian conflict in 2014, and that withdrawal will indeed protect them.
The mixed responses to this decision largely come from the complex involvement of various key players in the Syrian civil war, all with conflicting strategies. First there is the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran. The U.S. is fighting against Assad- seen as a threatening dictator- and against Putin’s desire to restore Russia as a world power, partly through involvement in the Middle East. Israel sided with the U.S., as both countries wish to contain Iran, mainly because the U.S. government has accused Iran of supporting terrorist activities in the region. The U.K. and France also partnered with the U.S. in the anti-ISIL coalition, and condemn Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on Syrians to repress rebel groups. Finally, Turkey – initially against Assad’s regime – now supports his desire to eradicate the Kurds, who control the Turkish-Syrian border and oppose Assad, demanding autonomy from both Syria and Turkey. This is only a brief summary of a multifaceted war. For a detailed timeline of the Syrian conflict, explore Al Jazeera’s comprehensive piece, “Syria’s civil war explained from the beginning.”
In the many articles written about Trump’s decision, the majority have reported on the impact for the above actors, most of which are foreign countries. But what about the 18.3 million Syrian people trapped in their homeland, now a battleground for foreign powers and an active terrorist organization? Over 465,000 Syrian lives have been lost, over one million injured, and more than 12 million displaced in the last seven years, according to Al Jazeera. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops is positive in that he does not wish to add fuel to the monstrous fire, instead choosing to prevent further bloodshed of his own people. However, he has reneged on his promise of an “enduring” defeat of ISIL, betraying the Kurds and Syrian civilians in the process. The Kurds – stateless indigenous people from Mesopotamia, which includes parts of modern day Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – joined the U.S. alliance to fight ISIL, the BBC writes. As most U.S. troops were stationed in the Kurdish region of northern Syria, they are now open to an impending attack by Turkey, or further oppression by Assad’s regime, states The Guardian. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a partner Kurdish militia, believe the withdrawal will “create a political and military vacuum in the area, leaving its people between the claws of hostile parties.” It also sends the message that the Syrian people and their livelihood are not a priority, and they are left to fend for themselves without on-ground support from the U.S. Meanwhile, the terror of ISIL continues. Just ten minutes before Trump’s “We have defeated ISIS” tweet, ISIL claimed responsibility for an attack in Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria, Voice of America reports. Trevor Trimm wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian, stating: “Thousands of troops fighting and dying in yet another Middle Eastern country is not what’s best for America.” However, to up and leave the local groups and civilians which rely on American support is downright irresponsible, and a dream come true for ISIL, Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Pentagon said it will transition to the “next phase of the campaign,” but has not given details on this, the BBC reports. Yet, humanitarian groups have warned that withdrawal could hinder relief efforts and trigger more violence. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the largest healthcare providers in northeast Syria, said hundreds of thousands of civilians may flee their homes, sacrificing aid and healthcare to escape the threat of a Turkish military invasion. David Miliband, the group’s president, said Trump has not considered the humanitarian consequences of his actions. Instead, he has “heightened the danger and distress for civilians,” particularly for the two million people in the northeast. While Kurdish authorities will assist civilians with aid and evacuation, many humanitarian workers fear they will be overwhelmed, The New York Times reports.
Trump’s rash decision clearly poses disastrous consequences for the Syrian people, but it doesn’t have to. One possible non-combative course of action is to provide support to civilians and the Kurds. Instead of bringing troops home, they could be reassigned to assist aid groups and Kurdish authorities in the evacuation of civilians from the Turkey-Syria border. They could also assist in the distribution and/or supply of vital resources such as food, water, and healthcare. Shelter and warmth are also a priority as the region approaches winter, where temperatures can reach zero degrees Celsius. This wouldn’t be the first time that U.S. troops were directly involved with aid in a conflict-ridden developing country. In 2016, U.S. Army Captain Cody Negrete traveled to Burundi to participate in a “military health engagement” to share best practices with the Burundi National Defense Force. According to the Military Health System website, this was part of MHS’ wider initiative to “develop sustainable programs and partnerships” that help foreign military health systems improve. Depending on feasibility, such a program could be implemented in Syria alongside Kurdish soldiers, local health workers, and the IRC.
It is a dire situation for civilians, one which surely demands international intervention. Trump doesn’t have to send soldiers into battle and can remain present without colliding with other key players, all while positively impacting Syrian communities. Yes, there are risks involved with staying, which the government must weigh against the inevitable backlash from leaving. But it would be a smart move for America’s global reputation, particularly in the Middle East. The Kurdish foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, said governments will question their trust in the U.S. “This will cause many governments to rethink their alliances with a superpower that can really just abandon them…and throw them under the bus.” Not only is it a good political move, it is also morally good. As Richard Hass, president of the think tank Council on Foreign Relations and ex-US ambassador, said: “It would be strategically and morally wrong to leave Syrian Kurds to their fate vs Turkey. Same holds for leaving Syrian people to face their government, Iran and Russia.”