Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria will obviously change the political landscape in the Middle East. There are still countless actors left however (Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Kurds, Hisbollah, and a potential resurgence of the „Islamic State“) – if it wasn’t that devastating, one would feel as if a new season Game of Thrones had just begun.
It’s been almost eight years since the „Arab Spring‘ reached Syria (and more than 6 1/2 years since the International Committee of the Red Cross classified the situation as a non-international armed conflict). Numerous accounts of the evolvement of this conflict have been told. Russia (and to a lesser extent, China), pointing to the Libya conflict, vetoed the first Security Council resolution and argued that the West, first and foremost the US, aimed at overthrowing Assad early on (see the 4 October 2011 Security Council meeting).
The West, in turn, put the focus on the regime’s human rights violations. As the then-US representative stated at said meeting,
[d]uring this season of change, the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators. Those who oppose this draft resolution and give cover to a brutal regime will have to answer to the Syrian people and, indeed, to people across the region who are pursuing the same universal aspirations.
The record is clear. For more than six months, the Al-Assad regime has deliberately unleashed violence, torture and persecution against peaceful protesters, human rights defenders and their families.
No (regime) change, nowhere
Assad is still in power. His reign outlived the Obama presidency. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s well-known UN representative, has died. Libya is still in a state of chaos. The Islamic State has seemingly appeared out of nowhere just to disappear (more or less) thanks to a US-led bombing campaign and the groundwork of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.
Kurds abandoned. But I guess they saw it coming
Now the US is pulling out. A betrayal of the Kurds as countless commentators noted. Meanwhile, Russia always stood by its staunch ally. The message is clear, US reputation has taken a big hit.
The Kurds indeed had reasons to put their hopes on Trump. Didn’t he once state that he loved them after all?
They were probably skeptical enough however, having been instrumentalized just to be abandoned before, also by the US. In hindsight, there wasn’t that much of a choice after all. Cooperating with the US, even if meant becoming cannon fodder, was simply better than trying to stay neutral and remain one of the weaker parties in Syria. Now the Kurds have (more) weapons at least. It would have been naive to count on US support in a leftist state-building project (regardless of the positive resonance in Western media; remember how their female fighters were presented as a powerful counternarrative to ISIS-jihadists?).
Trump, the isolationist?
So where is Trump heading now? Reports suggests his foreign policy is influenced by Rand Paul these days, the son of Ron Paul. The libertarian who has been endorsing US isolationism in the tradition of the Monroe-doctrine for decades, also in the Middle East.
One can imagine Rand Paul sitting on one of Trump’s shoulders and John Bolton, the hawk, on the other. Bolton is the exact opposite of an isolationist, a former member of the Bush administration who suggested strikes against Iran (including regime change) or North Korea in the past.
Shift towards the Far east
Perhaps their views can be reconciled. Already Obama tried to shift the US‘ focus from the Middle East (the US does no longer need Arab oil, at least not as much as in the past) to the Far East. To China, to the South China Sea, to North Korea. I assume Trump will simply continue this path. He may tweet as much and as brute as he wants, he’s not breaking new ground here.
The conflict in Syria will obviously continue without the US. Russia, Iran, and Turkey have been outmanoeuvred Western diplomatic efforts with parallel peacetalks for long. The Kurds just called on Assad for help in Manbij (they learned their lesson in Afrin). Former allies now seeking protection by the US‘ Syrian foe and Putin?
The impact Trump’s decision to pull out will be less severe than many assume these days. Maybe he even did the right thing as former US ambassador to Syria Robert S Ford just wrote in the Washington Post. All those who worry over a post-US Middle East (eg Richard Haass) quickly had to roll back and clarify their statement – it’s not as if the US involvement had been a source of stability in the region after all.
Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Saudi continuation of the war in Yemen, Turkey preparing to attack Syrian Kurds, Assad in power and Isis anything but defeated, Iran expanding its regional reach, Russia the most influential external power: welcome to the post-American Middle East.
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) 26. Dezember 2018
to term the emerging middle east „post-american“ is not to say there was stability or US control. But US influence is down as local actors/govts are increasingly taking matters into their own hands w/o considering US interests-while the US has defined its interests more narrowly.
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) 26. Dezember 2018