Although the word "withdrawal" from eastern Syria has been repeated by US President Donald Trump and the staff of his administration more than once, and accusations were simultaneously directed towards the so-called "deep state" of delaying the execution of orders and manipulating procedures, this trend has taken a more serious turn recently in light of the existence of motives that drive it and people that are capable of accomplishing it.

In his first speech to the US forces as Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, who was appointed by Trump in place of Mark Esper, expressed his intention to accelerate the withdrawal of his country's forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan, echoing what Trump used to say: "it’s time to come home", and "all wars must end".

Withdrawal indicators

What increases Miller's seriousness is his appointment of Colonel Douglas Macgregor to the position of Senior Adviser to the Acting Secretary of Defense, a matter that US policy experts considered a clear indication of the Pentagon's intention to accelerate the withdrawal of the US forces from several regions in the Middle East, including Syria, before the end of President Trump's term. Macgregor is known for his repeated calls for the withdrawal of the US forces from Syria. He considers this a necessary step because "America has no national interest there". He believes that his country needs "to listen very carefully to the Iranians . . . find out what their interests are and look for areas where we can cooperate".

Among the indications of Trump's determination to implement the withdrawal agenda that he has long promised is the amount of dismissals and resignations that have taken place in the US Defense Department in recent days, which was described by the Washington Post as a "purge" that, in addition to Mark Esper, has extended to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Anderson, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Joseph Kernan, and the Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense Jen Stewart. The three were replaced with more loyal staff to Trump's political agenda.

Some US media outlets described what happened as a "coup" that was planned over a period of months to overthrow some of the Pentagon leaders to give way to the US President's control over the military establishment, thereby taking the initiative to direct some policies before his time in the White House ends.

Following Miller's statements, sources on the ground in Hasaka confirmed that the US forces withdrew a number of their military vehicles and soldiers from the countryside of the city of al-Malikiyah in Hasaka to Iraq, via the Al-Walid border crossing. It was not clear yet whether those moves were part of the US preparations to withdraw the forces from eastern Syria.

Jeffrey’s remarks

Interestingly, those moves coincided with statements by James Jeffrey, the US Envoy for Syria who resigned from his post, when he stated that "a game of cups and a ball (a game of deception) is being played so that it was not clear to our leadership how many forces we have there". This is intended to deceive Trump who is known for his lack of attention to details.

The former special envoy of the US State Department to Syria Frederic Hof explained to the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta the game referred to by Jeffrey: one of the ways to "deploy" various numbers of the US forces in Syria is to appoint some of them as "permanent", that is as main forces for the operations, and to call the others "temporary". These could be a unit that arrived, for example, to Syria from Iraq, to ​​support the main forces for a limited period. He said, "it is possible to replace the temporary forces withdrawing from Syria, which makes it possible to deploy more forces on the ground, whose numbers exceed those that are sent there on a permanent basis".

Trump's Motives and Drivers

1. Revenge: the motive of revenge against his opponent Joe Biden and the Democratic Party is one of the biggest drivers of Donald Trump's policies. The aim is to complicate matters as much as possible for the stage of rule by Biden and the Democrats, to prove that choosing them to rule instead of Trump was a mistake, considering that they will plunge into the troubles bequeathed to them by Trump, thus setting the stage for their removal from power at the end of Biden's first term.

On the other hand, Trump seeks to keep his footprint vividly on the US administration by appointing loyalists to him to important positions in the Pentagon and the intelligence services, which could not be easily changed by Biden due to the possibility of facing troubles with the most effective institutions in government that are assumed not to be affected by who arrives as President to the White House.

2. Condemning the Democrats: through the policy of withdrawal, Trump aims to prove that the Democrats are the ones who insist on involving the US in foreign conflicts. Thus, Trump appeals to a wide public opinion that demands the withdrawal of the US forces abroad and reducing their expenditures, which should be directed instead to investment in health, education, and infrastructure. Even if Trump does not succeed in withdrawing the US forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, he would embarrass the Biden administration by holding the latter responsible for the refusal to withdraw the US forces from abroad.

3. Shuffling the cards in the Syrian arena: Trump realises that the withdrawal of his forces will accelerate the ignition of the conflict between the Iranians, the Russians and the Turks, considering that those three actors will compete for the largest share of the US legacy. Russia will hasten to take hold of the oil wells, for which it does not hide its ambitions, both in terms of implementing the contracts it concluded with the Assad regime and operating Russian oil companies in what is considered Syria’s most important fields, and in terms of supplying the regime with its needs of oil to resolve its deepening crisis. Iran (and its militias) will rush to lay their hands over large areas of the region with the aim of securing its way to the Syrian coast. Turkey will seek to occupy more territories located on the border strip to keep the Kurdish threat away from its regions.

The disappearance of the US danger that unites those actors would accelerate the outbreak of discord among them, which would be tempting for Trump.

Difficulties of the withdrawal from Syria

There are many obstacles standing in the way of Trump's decision to withdraw his forces from eastern Syria, the most important of which are the following:

  1. Threat to Israel's security: it is no secret that the US presence in eastern Syria, and the Tanf region in particular, aims to obstruct Iran’s project to find a land way to supply its militias in Lebanon and Syria with weapons that threaten Israel’s security. This is one of the biggest obstacles facing Trump in the withdrawal project, given that he is known for his closeness to Israel and for providing valuable services to it. Therefore, while it is possible to withdraw the US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, withdrawing them from Syria is subject to different considerations.
  2. The possibility of the collapse of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration: the withdrawal of the US forces from eastern Syria will most likely lead to the immediate destruction of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, which would not be able to withstand either Turkey or the Assad regime, thus having to re-join the ranks of the Syrian regime according to the latter’s conditions. The Autonomous Administration is considered a US investment that transcends partisan conflicts. Members of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress have previously objected to Trump's intention to withdraw from eastern Syria, considering this a threat to US interests.
  3. Time and the deep state: it would be difficult for Trump to achieve a withdrawal while he has only a few weeks left in the administration, since such a process is subject to complex bureaucratic procedures. Besides, what Trump calls the "deep state" is capable of aborting his idea by deliberately slowing down the withdrawal process for logistical and security reasons to which he cannot object due to the dangers this might entail for the withdrawing forces. Even if the bulk of the US forces is withdrawn, the stay of dozens of soldiers is sufficient for the continuation of the US presence until the Biden administration restores the troops to their earlier size.

Summary and conclusions

Despite the desire of the staff appointed by Trump in the decision-making positions in the US Defense Department to withdraw from Syria, either for interest-based reasons related to the decline of Syria's benefit to the US strategy, or because of Trump's desire to put obstacles before the Biden administration, the execution of the withdrawal is beyond Trump's capability for reasons related to Israel’s security and the long-term US interests, after having invested for many years in the Syrian issue.

Trump will more likely give up this decision during the remainder of his term due to the emergence of sharp opposition on the part of the institutions of the US state and Congress, in addition to the Israeli lobby, although a slight reduction is expected to be made in the number of soldiers in eastern Syria, a measure that would not change the equations on the ground or significantly alter the rules of the game being followed in the Syrian arena.

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