Article contributed by guest author Alan Baez.
The U.S. military presence in Syria has been essential in keeping Russia’s influence in the Middle East at bay through the continued support of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are engaged in a conflict with the Russian-backed Assad regime. Recently, the Trump administration decided to rapidly remove U.S. military personnel from Syria based on the conclusion that ISIS has been defeated in the region. The Pentagon plans on withdrawing the troops in phases during a period of 30 days. Despite this plan, the Pentagon has stated they will continue conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. This move by President Trump has invited opposition from legislators in both political parties, members of his staff, and our allies.
Those against Trump’s decision include former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Senators Lindsey Graham, Jack Reed, and Bob Mendez. During a press conference, the three senators claim that both Pompeo and Mattis disagree with the timing of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. Trump’s resolution was one of the reasons Mattis resigned, the final straw in an ongoing disagreement with the administration’s foreign policy. National Security Advisor John Bolton informed Graham about how the president came to his decision without consulting his national security team. The president backed his decision in a tweet by arguing that Russia is displeased with his decision because now they have to combat ISIS on their own. However, Prime Minister Putin commended the U.S. president on his decision. U.S. allies have conveyed their disapproval of Trump’s resolution by way of vocal criticism from citizens and public officials.
Foreign officials who have voiced their concerns include Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel; a member of the British Ministry of Defense; and the SDF. Tobias Ellwood, a member of the British parliament, argues that, despite ISIS’s diminishing influence in the region, the terrorist network is still active and developing new ways to conduct its operations.
Netanyahu’s primary concern in Syria is Iran’s military presence. During a conversation with Israel’s prime minister, both Trump and Pompeo informed Netanyahu that the U.S. has other ways of maintaining its influence in Syria.
In opposition to Trump’s decision, Syrian Kurds have protested around military bases in the town of Kobane while displaying photos of relatives who have died alongside Americans in combat. The SDF claims the U.S. withdrawal from the country exposes them to the threats of ISIS, Assad, and Turkey, whose president recently announced a planned invasion of northern Syria.
Given that a U.S. military presence in Syria is one of the primary factors preventing Russia from exerting its influence in the Middle East, the removal of U.S. troops from the country would allow Russia to grow its influence through its then-unmitigated support of the Assad regime. This argument can be further supported by Putin’s approval of the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Syria. The three results that Russia hopes to achieve from the country’s intervention in Syria include: demonstrating its reliability to Middle Eastern countries (in contrast with the U.S.’s unreliability and capriciousness), showcasing its military hardware to potential buyers, and gaining access to the Mediterranean by maintaining military bases in the country. These objectives are all parts of Putin’s goal to restore Russia’s great power status they lost following the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s.
If the U.S. leaves Syria and allows Russia to continue supporting the current state without opposition, it will allow Russia to increase its international influence, earn income from military weapons and technology exports, and cost the U.S. its regional allies.