Disentangling the United States from Syria is proving to be far more difficult than President Trump has anticipated. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s snub of National Security Adviser John Bolton yesterday in Ankara serves as a warning of the difficulties that lay ahead. Bolton’s insistence that Turkey agree to safeguard the US-supported Kurdish militia in northern Syria before a US troop withdrawal begins struck a nerve with Erdogan. He refused to meet with Bolton following the remarks, claiming what Bolton proposed was in direct contradiction to the deal Erdogan and Trump agreed to in December. The Turkish president also made it clear he would prefer to communicate directly with Trump instead of through an emissary like Bolton. Until this issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all involved parties, the US troop withdrawal from Syria will likely be put on hold.
Trump is determined to pull US troops out of Syria quickly, and for good reason. Syria has no strategic value for the United States. Critics of the proposed withdrawal are quick to point to the notion that leaving Syria will embolden Iran and undercut US efforts to contain Iranian influence in the region. This is simply not true. The US has been very successful in containing and challenging Iran on multiple fronts across the Middle East. The same critics also argue that a US presence in Syria is needed to counter Russia’s expanding influence and power there. Again, not true. Syria has historically been a Russian ally and therefore Moscow regards the survival of Bashir al-Assad’s government as vital to its national interests.
The United States cannot say the same. Yes, there is a humanitarian disaster going on in Syria. However, after the debacle that post-Gaddafi Libya became, it’s unlikely that Washington will ever mix foreign policy, military action, and humanitarian goals together again. This particular combination has proved to be volatile, especially in the Middle East.