How Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Helps Putin, Hurts Allies

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (center) arrives for a closed intelligence briefing at the U.S. Capitol with members of the House of Representatives on Dec. 13, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Source Win McNamee/Getty

Why you should care

Because the Syria conflict has roots in terrorism and geopolitical power.

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John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

This week, President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement that he would be pulling troops out of Syria, while also ordering the Pentagon to draw up plans to reduce military involvement in Afghanistan by approximately half.

The sudden action has had global ripple effects that left allies in Syria scrambling and Russia enjoying a victory lap. Gen. James Mattis submitted his resignation from Trump’s Cabinet, writing that the president had the right to have a secretary of defense “whose views are better aligned to yours.” We sat down with former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, who has personally briefed four presidents, to make sense of this wild week. 

What are the ramifications of the Syria decision?

The combination of the Mattis resignation and the decision to pull out of Syria takes Trump’s foreign policy to a crossroads. We now have probably the most definitive statement so far of what “America First” really means to Trump, because pulling out of Syria dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. It means he is willing to abandon allies — in this case, the Kurds who have fought for us and who had an expectation that we would support and protect them. He’s also walking away from commitments made with our traditional European allies and a broad coalition of countries that pledged to fight ISIS until the end. That end is not yet reached. Trump’s decision has a concreteness to it not seen in his other expressions, such as rhetorically attacking the European Union or questioning NATO. It is concrete in the way that his withdrawals from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership were concrete but in a particularly volatile part of the world.

What will it mean to no longer have Mattis in the administration? Who could replace him?

I won’t use the hackneyed phrase about Mattis being “the adult in the room,” but his resignation removes from the administration the one figure who was able, with authority that stretched across both the legislative and the executive branches, to tell Trump he was moving in the wrong direction. Sometimes persuasively, sometimes not, but Mattis had the stature and the background. The most obvious candidates are Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a former Army lieutenant, or Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is certainly an expert on defense and seems able to work with Trump. Gen. Jack Keane is another potential pick. A real dark horse might be David Petraeus. He’s someone who would think like Mattis about the importance of allies, but it’s not inconceivable he could be offered the job.

 

Isn’t Trump cutting losses in Syria? He leaves with ISIS significantly reduced, and although he hasn’t replaced Bashar al-Assad, that was always a stretch.

It’s true that even Barack Obama didn’t want to get sucked deeply into Syria. It’s also true that we had walked back pretty far from the idea of getting rid of Assad. However, the articulated U.S. policy toward Syria, which the Trump administration released just prior to this decision, was threefold: to defeat ISIS, to get Iran out and to construct a political settlement that involved a transition to a government more representative of the Sunni population, which makes up the majority but is repressed. In deciding to remove the American presence, Trump is jumping ahead of the goal of destroying ISIS. It is not destroyed. On the other points, you can’t get Iran out or influence negotiations if you’re not there enough to have skin in the game.

Could this lead to a resurgence of terror groups like ISIS?

It’s going to give them a freer hand to regenerate and to continue plotting and attacking. They do not have the caliphate they had when they owned half the territory in Syria and Iraq, but they have blended into the population and into areas that are less governed and hold the potential still to surprise us. They have bases of support in Africa and as far away as Southeast Asia, the Philippines in particular. The engine, the motivation, for ISIS is still very much alive. The reason foreign fighters were flowing into Syria at 1,000 people a month was because of the magnetic pull of Sunni grievances. That problem has not been solved, and that’s why you need a political settlement.

How does all this benefit Russia?

It plays into Russia’s hand in that Putin has long been seeking to go global. His diplomacy in the Middle East has been impressive. Russian diplomats have been all over the region building relationships and seeking arms contracts. The Middle East is important to Putin partly because in Syria he has bases and port access to the Mediterranean. He has the potential to sell weapons throughout the Middle East, which is important because he doesn’t have many ways to make money except by selling oil. And third, it gives him a status in the world that offsets his inferior conventional power. You have to give him credit for playing a weak hand rather well in Syria. 

What message does this send U.S. allies?

Here I’m going to sound like the dreaded deep state Trump fantasizes about … but we could use more deep state to combat the chaos at this point. To do it through a tweet and a YouTube announcement, I guarantee you, leaves our coalition partners wondering what the hell is going on. One of the things you hear in the region now is that the U.S. doesn’t stick with its partners or its commitments. Meanwhile, Putin looks like he is sticking up for his ally at whatever cost: He is the reason Assad is surviving.

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