For America’s enemies, Christmas has come early. Russia immediately confirmed Vladimir Putin’s approval, Iran couldn’t have imagined a better outcome, and Turkey is jubilant.
After the shocking and impulsive announcement by President Donald Trump of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis’ stunning but understandable resignation, the United States leaves the world whiplashed.
Neither allies, nor ground commanders anticipated the announcement that U.S. would remove support from what is the world’s most entrenched conflict. The Kurds — America’s staunchest battlefield allies in Syria against ISIS — learned of Trump’s decision with the American public.
Overlooked is the astonishing demonstration of power NATO member Turkey has demonstrated in persuading the United States to leave North Eastern Syria. In one phone call, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convinced Trump to exit territory where ISIS has been repelled because of the combined efforts of U.S. forces and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Even Russia and Iran with their military might and proxy militia engaged in years of conflict could not achieve what Erdogan did over the phone: the full and unconditional withdrawal of American forces from Syria.
Mattis’ successor and the entire U.S. government certainly will face an increasingly challenging dilemma in America’s relations not only to Syria but also to Iraq, where a recently elected prime minister openly announced his desire to tie Iraq ever closer to Iran. Of course, Iran now emerges victorious because of the U.S. troop withdrawal from its coveted proxy, Syria.
So, welcome to a Syria soon controlled by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Say hello to an uninterrupted land bridge for Iran to the Mediterranean via which Iran can arm Hezbollah in its next war with Israel.
The Iraq of today now fulfills President George W. Bush’s worst fears when he contemplated a premature exit from Iraq. During an address in Nevada to the American Legion gathering Nevada in 2007, Bush said: “For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country.”
Prophetically, this has come to pass. And Trump is repeating this scenario in Syria, where the gains were made by a 74-nation coalition are rescinded while the U.S. undermines allies around the globe.
For America’s rivals, the future has never looked so bright. Russia has now access to the Mediterranean and a foothold in the Middle East for the first time since 1973. And Iran’s predatory ambitions can continue.
For the Kurds, the shocking U.S. exit from Syria is a devastating blow soon to become lethal for their Syrian brethren, revealing to them their years of fealty — particularly of the Iraqi Kurds to the United States -has amounted to naught.
In the face of rising tensions, the Kurdish Peshmerga will now face in battle not only the Shia extremist Iraqi Armed Services (strongly allied with Iran) from the South, but also Iran’s formidable military might from the West and now Turkey- NATO’s largest military power- from the East.
Instead of realizing an independent Kurdistan to fruition — which would have been in the interests of America, Israel (the Kurds are staunchly pro-Israel) and the Sunni world that seeks to curb Iran’s regional ambitions — the United States has just sealed the Kurds’ death warrant.
But most poignant of all, America’s exit from Syria is a loss for soldiers — a sorrow America’s men and women in uniform and Syrian Kurdish forces will mourn together.
On Thursday night, I remembered the brave Peshmerga soldiers — men and women — I met in Iraq. They shared their enormous love for the United States, recounting the terrible conflict they had survived battling ISIS alone, until the American forces arrived to help. Over food with Peshmerga commanders in Duhok, Iraq, they talked to me of American ideals, they quoted Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Kissinger, and they showed a new love for America, my nation.
Thursday night, a patient of mine, himself a U.S. Marine once serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, talked to me with deep sorrow about “the good people we left behind.”
Thinking of Trump’s troop-withdrawl decision, my patient remembered the Afghani and Iraqi citizens and soldiers he had worked with against the Taliban and al-Qaida only to be pulled from the field prematurely as well.
“Why do we leave the good people, only to see them killed after we are gone?” the patient asked.
I found myself, even as a doctor, without words of consolation or advice. But the Marine patient put his hand over his heart, and bowing from the hip, bid me “assalamu alaikum.” That’s exactly what America’s bravest and most noble soldiers will say to their fellow warriors in Syria.
Qanta A. Ahmed is a doctor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom.”