US Policy in Syria: A Series of Grudging Half-Measures

The president of the United States is fond of talking off the top of his head.

Donald Trump sees his ability to make off the cuff statements on important matters of policy as an essential element of his appeal.

He would not want to appear overly rehearsed, or even too well-briefed. After all, he needs to be seen to speak his mind. Too much preparation, too much outside information, interferes with this formula.

Journalists and commentators feign outrage and shock when Trump does this, but most have adjusted the way they view these impromptu pronouncements. These comments are to be taken seriously, but not literally. They are not worth getting overly worried about; after all, Trump will say – or tweet – something else, likely entirely different, tomorrow.

That said, occasionally Trump’s unpractised remarks cut through. Last week, Trump made one announcement at a public rally which attracted uncommon attention.

The president suggested that the United States would be leaving Syria – pulling its significant military presence from the country. And he said that this would be happening soon.

This proposed withdrawal seemed so divergent from the reality of Trump’s Syria policy – which has included a continuation of the military commitment inherited from Barack Obama with moments of not insignificant intensification – that it was simultaneously disbelieved and feared.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator, said unequivocally that withdrawal would constitute Trump’s ‘worst decision’. Despite this, White House announced Wednesday that the US’ military mission against Islamic State group in Syria is indeed coming to a ‘rapid end’, though it offered no timetable for withdrawal.

The US military appears to have taken Trump’s statement seriously, too, deeming it sufficiently important to necessitate continued responses from the Pentagon. America’s military took it both seriously and literally – and knew other nations would do so, too.

Though initially some observers dismissed Trump’s comments as campaign rhetoric employed while in office, overblown and likely to mean little, this seems no longer to match up to reality.

But despite the implicit suggestion by military officials that Trump’s remark was off the cuff and thus inconsequential, the president’s mutterings are not inconsequential by definition.

There is evidence that Trump has been thinking in this way (and complaining likewise) for some time. And one must not forget that it echoes so much of what he has said before: Its tone perfectly mirrors many of Trump’s isolationist prejudices, and accords with his previous comments about leaving Syria to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which Trump was not shy about saying.

Trump feels that America is getting little from being in Syria. He believes the country is not worth the effort – or the expense – to save. This is a typically myopic view, born perhaps of a businessman’s tendency to reduce everything to an overly simple cost-benefit analysis.

It seems clear that, if the American mission in Syria seems unrewarding and in part unsuccessful, this is in part a consequence of deliberate policy of doing as little as physically possible.

The Americans focused on the Islamic State group (IS) at the expense of other issues; tried to get away with supporting what was hoped to be a catch-all proxy in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); and took insufficient care regarding civilian casualties and the speed with which major cities were recaptured.

None of this has served the United States, or the people of Syria, well. None of it has paid dividends.

American policy in Syria, over two administrations, has in fact comprised a series of half-measures. It has been plainly insufficient in the job of stabilising a country after seven years of vicious civil war. American policy has been at heart reactive, grudging. For America’s allies or would-be friends, it is difficult to read. Even optimists among them find it hard to be reassured.

The Americans are trying to reassure nonetheless.

Note the story, released by Turkish state media, that the US may be building two military bases near Manbij, a city which is held by the YPG-affiliated Manbij Military Council (MMC), partially in tandem with some elements connected to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey is worried about Manbij. This and other things galvanise its Syrian rebel allies and proxies, marshalled under Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, who seem to be raring to overtake and capture the city.

Any American interjection into the tense situation ought, therefore, to be measured and reasonable.

But the way the possibility of these two bases have been revealed meets neither standard.

It is still unclear who these bases might be intended to support. They are unlikely to play host to a permanent US presence unconnected to a ‘partner force’, a formulation American strategists prefer.

The bases could back up the YPG and the MMC. That possible eventuality would demonstrate – to Turkey and all other observers – that the US is still over-reliant on the YPG, the SDF and other affiliates.

If, on the other hand, the bases are instead intended to signal an American reaction to Turkish concerns, that itself is no guarantee of American stability and sense. It could be seen to prove that a point expressed well by others – that the United States has no active strategy and is marooned in Syria, effectively assailed by all sides.

All this is difficult to reconcile. It is not easy to be the world’s preeminent power. American frustration, channelled through Trump’s unfiltered utterances, might seem just a touch reasonable.

But the very idea that these frustrations can justify withdrawal is absurd. America has a responsibility to Syria and its people, a responsibility which has not been fully faced. That responsibility cannot be discharged quickly and forgotten as fast.

Only when the United States engages sincerely with Syria, and ceases being passive and reactive, can its policy cease to fail. Perhaps, if it engaged seriously with Syria, its president would have less cause to threaten total withdrawal so petulantly, and in public.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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