If there is one truism about the Middle East, it is that American involvement always makes things worse. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and the rest of the world can be directly traced to the US invasion of Iraq. Its constant aerial bombardment of Syria has only prolonged the Syrian civil war and even helped Bashar-al-Assad continue his campaign of mass murder. For that reason alone, President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he would withdraw the 2000 US troops in the country should be welcomed. The presence of American fighters only bred resentment and did nothing tangible to bring an end to the war. But that does not mean the conflict in Syria is about to end anytime soon. Trump says that the IS had been completely defeated but that is far from the truth. It is believed that the group still has a force of 15000 in the country, mainly along the border with Iraq.
US forces were primarily based in the Kurdish areas of Syria and their withdrawal could prompt Turkey to take action against Kurdish groups. Turkish President Recip Erdogan was among those who reacted most positively to Trump’s announcement and it would not strain credibility too much to suggest that the US withdrawal was one concession he won for not raising too much of a fuss about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Erdogan, after meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday, has called for renewed efforts to establish peace in Syria. With Assad still determined to wipe out the opposition with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the prospect of an end to the war is still distant but the withdrawal of US troops can only help kick-start the process.
The Syrian withdrawal could signal a significant shift in US foreign policy. There are now reports that the US plans to withdraw more than half of its troops from Afghanistan as it pursues peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. In Afghanistan, too, the US is mired in an unwinnable war where the presence of its soldiers makes it significantly more difficult to achieve peace. The one problem is that Trump appears to be acting alone, without the support of his administration. Defence Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation in a strongly-worded letter that essentially accused Trump of favouring foes over friends. The foreign policy establishment in Washington is extremely hawkish and will fight Trump’s withdrawals at every turn. The fact though is that US military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan does nothing to make the US safer and brings nothing but misery to the countries that have been invaded.