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Trump’s transactional troop pullout from Syria could blow up

Finian Cunningham
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
Trump’s transactional troop pullout from Syria could blow up
It’s something of a paradox. President Trump’s troop withdrawal from Syria is potentially a boon for peace in the long-term. But in the short-term, the move risks increasing conflict.

The danger of conflict stems from NATO ally Turkey viewing the US pullout as an opportunity to launch an offensive on Syrian Kurdish separatists. Also, American ally Israel has warned that it will fill the “void” left by US forces in order to attack Iranian-backed militia in Syria.

It almost goes without saying that neither Syrian government forces nor the Iranian military will hardly tolerate the above putative offensives without taking counter-measures. It’s not hard to imagine therefore how Syria could become a new battleground – just when the eight-year war against jihadist anti-government militants was coming to an end.

The irony about this precarious situation is that the possible flare-up in violence is coming from US allies, Turkey and Israel, not from remnant terror groups affiliated with Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Nusra Front.

Also on rt.com US signs order to pull out forces from Syria, as Trump says Turkey will eliminate remnants of ISIS

Since Trump gave the order last week to pull out the nearly 2,000 US troops in Syria, the president has been assailed by bipartisan critics at home and NATO allies for “walking away” from the task of defeating the terror groups. These critics are claiming that Trump is allowing the jihadists the chance to regroup and rekindle their terror threat in Syria and more widely against Europe and elsewhere.

The resignations of US Defense Secretary James Mattis and the envoy to Syria Brett McGurk were said to be in protest over Trump’s “strategic blunder” in ordering the troop pullout. That view has been echoed by Britain, France and Germany. French President Emmanuel Macron chided Trump for not being a reliable ally in the fight against terrorism.

READ MORE: 'Allies should be reliable': Macron 'regrets' Trump's decision to pull out of Syria

What Trump’s critics don’t get is that this president is very much guided by transactional business calculation and bottom-line dollar figures. “Strategy” has got little to do with it.

Trump’s thinking was revealed when he said his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria was made after a phone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, when the latter assured that his country’s military would “finish off ISIS” in Syria.

Their conversation also came as the US State Department confirmed that Turkey was buying Patriot missiles worth $3.5 billion.

All this is music to Trump’s ears. In his typical transactional profit-driven worldview, Trump gets to subcontract out the work for destroying IS, saving the US money on stationing troops and warplanes in Syria. On top of that the Turks are back in business for buying American weaponry – after several months of rowing between Washington and Ankara over a detained pastor and Turkey purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, among other issues.

Ankara has confirmed that a US delegation is due to arrive in the coming days to coordinate the American withdrawal from Syria’s northeast region, where the Pentagon has been supporting Kurdish separatists. The US-backed YPG has long rankled Erdogan, who accuses the group of being terrorists in league with the PKK Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast region. Ankara fears that the Kurds could form a breakaway state straddling the Syrian-Turkish border.

Washington has claimed that its support for the Kurds is aimed at combating IS in Syria. By pulling out of Syria, critics accuse the US of throwing the Kurds under a bus. It will leave them vulnerable to being targeted by Turkey.

Erdogan has been warning for months that his forces were prepared to enter Syria to go on the offensive against the Kurds. It was only the US military presence that appeared to check Turkish moves. Now that the Pentagon is vacating its forces under Trump’s order, Ankara will no doubt see an opportunity.

This is where Trump’s business-style decision-making may come unstuck. Saving money in troop costs and selling Patriot missiles may all sound smart, but the quick-buck gains could unleash dangerous dynamics.

No matter what he may have told Trump, Erdogan’s top priority is to vanquish the Kurdish separatists, not to eradicate IS or other jihadist terror groups. Russia and Iran, for example, have complained that Ankara has not done enough to disband Al Nusra Front in de-escalation zones around Aleppo and Idlib in Syria’s northwest region.

So, the proposition that Turkey will “finish off” IS while the US forces go home is dubious. It of course sounds appealing to Trump who is always haranguing allies to carry more of the burden in military matters. But Erdogan is selling Trump a bait-and-switch dummy.

Also on rt.com ‘Cleanse them’: Turkey threatens to send troops to Syria’s Manbij unless US removes Kurdish militias

That is probably why Russia has responded with caution to Trump’s military pullout from Syria. Yes, the move is to be welcomed. US troops should not have been in the country in the first place, that being a violation of Syria’s sovereignty. For any long-term political settlement, American and other NATO forces must get out of Syria.

But in the immediate scenario of US troops pulling out, in what appears to be a grubby deal between Trump and Erdogan, the risk is that violence could blow up from Turkish forces launching a war against Kurds in northeast Syria. It can be expected that Syrian President Bashar al Assad will not tolerate such an incursion. Turkey’s gambit could end up provoking an all-out war with Syria.

The other risk factor from Trump’s business-as-usual conduct is Israel escalating its military operations in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded testily to news of the US withdrawal by vowing to step up attacks on Iranian-backed militias.

It is not foregone that conflict in Syria will erupt as US troops withdraw over the coming weeks. Turkish forces are reportedly in heavy build-up on the border with Syria. Nevertheless, a Turkish invasion of Syria may still be averted. Russia has previously proposed for the Kurds go back to the status quo ante, whereby they agree to uphold Syria’s territorial integrity and relinquish the idea of forming a separatist state. The Kurds may also align with the Syrian army and in that way check Erdogan’s ambitions of crushing them.

As for Israel, it has has to weigh up the risk of encountering the newly installed S-300 air defense systems in Syria which Moscow supplied after the fatal shoot-down of the Russian reconnaissance plane by Israeli fighter jets earlier this year.

Still, however, the danger exists of further and potentially bigger war in Syria, stemming from Trump’s latest move. The root problem is US military involvement in Syria and the Middle East generally. American forces, as well as other NATO forces, should not have been in Syria in the first place. That imbroglio is loaded with explosive repercussions. Even when the superficial signal is one of de-escalation, as Trump’s pullout from Syria suggests, the danger of military mixing remains.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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