Understanding the Effects of American Troop Withdrawal from Northern Syria: Where are we headed?

This research paper will be specifically analyzing the problem that has been created by the United States withdrawing military troops from Syria and the ultimate impact that it will have on the region. To conduct the research I examined peer-reviewed journal articles and primary sources to help understand the different angles affecting the withdrawal. Another aspect of my research to answer my question shows how other global actors within and outside the region are rising to fill the void that the United States once occupied. I was able to make a comparison, historically, of the position the United States took in the past, between World War I and World War II, and how a similar situation could arise in the present day. My research includes keywords such as Isolationism, Neorealism, Offshore Balancing, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Europe, and NATO.

This paper will be analyzing the connection of America’s current foreign policies of the American President, Donald J. Trump administration in the Middle East, and how it relates to isolationism historically. Are we on the same path, from a historical perspective, by pulling the United States back from liberal internationalism in the Middle East, leaving the door open for another nation to pursue their interests, and possibly create an unstable situation in the region that may lead to large scale global conflicts? It is my belief, the steps the current American administration is taking, vis-a-vie Syria, will lead to a more unstable Middle East and possibly Europe. I aim to take a closer look at current agreements and alliances that the United States is making and breaking throughout the global community and how might it affect Middle East peace and European politics. More specifically, I will analyze the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and how that may have created instability in the region for United States’ interests. I will be using peer-reviewed journal articles and primary sources as evidence to support my claims. Within the articles I have reviewed, there is evidence that the withdrawal of American troops in Syria is leading to instability in the region. I will examine the effects of American withdrawal and how that led to the invasion of Syria by Turkey with the involvement of Russia.
American Isolationism has been defined as a foreign policy of a nation to not get involved in economic entanglements and the domestic politics of other countries. There are many contrasting ideas on this policy beginning with, does it have benefits or negative consequences when it is employed. According to John Dumbrell, “since the close of the Cold War, the United States has been engaged in a (as of yet, unresolved) debate structured around the poles of internationalism and isolationism.”. Part of that debate, “If some isolationist positions embody nativist or intolerant attitudes, some internationalist ones display qualities of imperialism and militarism.” (Dumbrell, 1999) We have yet to find a leader who can embody both fields of thought. While the main idea behind Dumbrell’s explanation of isolationism is, “Isolationist attitudes and policy stances are those that question core United States’ commitments: to global diplomatic activism, to European security, to leadership of the liberal international economic order, and to various alliance structures.” (Dumbrell, 1999) As you can see from Dumbrell’s explanation that there are contrasting ways to view the topic of American Isolationism.
The interwar period of non-large-scale wars between World War I and World War II was not exactly a period of global peace. Blower states, “Americans had not wanted to throw their weight around, the isolationist narrative implies but had been forced against their will into the limelight of global affairs. Unlike self-serving European imperialists who grasped for power, Americans had undertaken their benevolent reign only after being prodded out of their shell and only because it was a dirty job that somebody had to do.” Here she rightfully states that American isolationism, existing from 1919 up until this point, most likely would have continued if the Unites States was not thrust into a world war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Peter Boyle quotes Senator Arthur Vandenberg, “…of Pearl Harbor that, Isolationism for any realist ended on that day.”  America’s position of not getting involved in other nation’s affairs had been consistent and successful up until this point. Although, it was not until after World War II that the United States realized they must have a seat in the global community to prevent another large-scale war like this from happening again. Post World War II, the creation of the United Nations did just that. Blower writes,
Americans have always been divided over foreign policy. They had long worried about the unintended consequences of economic expansion overseas, and they wrestled with imperialist ambitions and temptations to become embroiled in European politics before. What was different in the decades after World War I, and what lent this debate its special urgency and potency, was a sense that one important option in the traditional conduct of international relations-neutrality-had become unhinged from its moorings. (Blower, 2014)
This aligns with much of my argument. Presently, some would say, Americans are as divided as they have ever been on foreign policy. Opponents of President Trump’s foreign policy are worried about international alliances and the collapse of global stability impeding on our interests abroad while damaging the relationships we have built with friendly nations. The issue may appear slightly different in our present day, although there are some similarities. American isolationism after 1919 was a result of the United States failing to convince Congress to allow us to be a part of Wilson’s creation, which one could say combined with the great depression, financially, led to the rise of the Nazi party. Today, we have an administration that is pulling the United States out of alliances and agreements within the international community. It leaves the question, are we destabilizing Europe and the Middle East on purpose.
It has long been thought by many that history repeats itself throughout our timeline. The events that led up to World War II were no doubt influenced by the lack of American involvement in world affairs. America’s policy of isolation or neutrality allowed for the rise of the Nazis. How can we learn from the mistakes of the past to prevent disasters of the future? Throughout political history, there has been a rotation of global hegemony from Rome to France, Great Britain to the United States. Most scholars believe it has only been the last 100 years or so that the United States has become a leader on the global stage.

In 1908 the famous journalist and future prime minister of France, Tardieu, came to the United States to lecture at Harvard University, and as a result of his visit, he wrote a book entitled Notes sur les tats-Unis. In the notes, he declared: The United States is a world power. It is seated at the table where the greatest game is played, and it cannot leave.  It was almost universally acknowledged that the United States had taken its place on the world stage as a major power. There were obvious reasons for this view. With the acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898, the nation had acquired an empire in the Pacific. In naval strength, it was surging forward. By 1900 it ranked fourth among the sea powers of the world, and by 1908 it was second to only Britain in capital ship tonnage. Its industrial power was unequaled. At the turn of the century, it led the world in coal, iron, and steel production. Little wonder that the British writer William T. Stead published a book in 1901 with the title The Americanization of the World.
Esthus pointed out that it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the United States began to be recognized on the world stage. He then goes on to state, “Accepting the thesis that the United States became a world power in the turn-of-the-century era, a further question arises. What did this new status mean for the nature of the United States foreign policy?” I believe it meant that it was the time for the United States to elevate itself and lead the global community with its new found ability to reach further than it had before in the sense of assisting other nations rather than conquering them. This can be seen post World War I, with Woodrow Wilson laying out a reconciliation plan, for the countries that were affected, through the speech of his Fourteen Points. Here, in addition to laying out a plan for nations to get back to normal, Wilson, in his last point expresses a plan to create the League of Nations that will help to protect with ‘mutual guarantees’ all nations involved the in the same manner with assistance from the others. It stated, “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants to afford mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” Unfortunately, when Wilson tried to get the bill for the Treaty of Versailles, which included the League of Nations, passed, it was blocked by the senate who was worried about American sovereignty. After Wilson suffered a stroke trying to convince the American people of his plight the idea of the United States joining the international community was dead in the water. Thus, began the period of American isolationism for the twentieth century.
After World War II ended, the United States realized that it must stay involved in world affairs or risk the same fate happening again. Even after the Vietnam war, when the United States felt as if it had over-extended itself, risking an American decline on the world stage, it knew that it had to continue to secure its interests. Boyle writes, “The war in Vietnam, however, has shaken America’s confidence in the validity of the assumptions upon which her internationalist policies of the post-war years were based. Doubts have been raised that perhaps the pendulum, in swinging away from isolationism, has swung too far in the opposite direction. Senator Fulbright, for example, has argued that the United States has become over-committed and that, like great nations of the past, America may overextend herself and decline.” (Boyle, 1972) Both sides of the argument have been debated, post World War II with the conclusion, by design, that the United States cannot pull back from its international duties and obligations without risk. Even though the containment of communism placed a strain on the United States by overextending itself forcing it to rethink how it deals with global issues, it continued to stay involved.

The interwar period could give us some insight into what may be happening in the world today. American troop withdrawal from northern Syria may be allowing Recep Tayyip Erdogan to overexert Turkish military strength in the Middle East region similar to the way Adolf Hitler did in Europe leading up to World War II. One might question why the United States would possibly want to weaken its influence in an already volatile region by taking a step back instead of digging deeper in. Allies of the United States are questioning their reliability towards them by looking at how quickly it was able to cut and run from its Kurdish allies. By leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves, it created uncertainty on exactly how the Russians and Iranians may exploit the retreat. This action by President Trump was a surprise for many, especially those who disagreed with the action leading to the resignation of, at the time Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis. It is still not known why President Trump took this action but some speculate that it was to persuade Turkey to purchase an air defense system from the United States rather than the S-400 system that Russia was trying to sell to them, as well as F-35 fighter jets that were in the discussion also. President Trump states his reason for the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria due to the victory achieved by defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group. However, several experts suggest they will only rise again without the United States’ presence to keep them scattered.  According to Lindenstrauss and Shavit, “The bottom line is that Trump’s decision to withdraw United States’ troops from northeastern Syria significantly undermined stability in that part of the country. The abandonment of Kurdish partners within the SDF framework, which spearheaded the ground defeat of the Islamic State, serves as a warning signal to other United States partners…The exit of American forces in the way it was executed grants an easier-than-expected victory to adversaries of the United States, and especially Iran.” The withdrawal shows a willingness of the United States to possibly give up on Middle East peace with an unwillingness to keep the region’s stability in order – allowing Russia to move its influence deeper within the region. Russia creating an alliance with Iran will lead to America having less of an ability to pursue its interests in the region, especially oil output. Iran and Russia want the United States out of the region to make gains on their spheres of influence. International relations realists would wonder why is the United States creating a situation of anarchy in the Middle East for itself by giving up its influence in areas they are surrendering to adversarial nations. As the United States moves out, Russia moves in along with Iran. In October 2019, the United States officially withdrew American troops from northern Syria. July 2019, was a major turning point for relations between Russia and Turkey. Russia won the deal that the United States was trying to make, selling Turkey its S-400 missal defense system. It appears, at this point, the United States cut its losses and moved out. Disregarding warnings from President Trump, Turkey finalized the deal moving towards Russian influence in the region, rather than that of the United States. Some suggest that this is Russia pursuing its interest in creating a new Cold War that will make the world decided between the United States, the west, and Russia economically, politically, and militarily.
The relationship between Russia and Turkey began long before the withdrawal of American troops from the region. Turkey has been looking to Russia more so ever since they were rejected from being accepted into the European Union. From 1992 to 2018 the economic relationship between the two has grown by nearly ninety-eight percent. Russia and Turkey found a sort of kismet in the sense that they were both shunned by European acceptance. Both countries tried to pursue relations with Europe, with Turkey seeking admission in the European Union and being denied while in 2014 Russia was suspended from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) participation because it invaded Ukraine. After unsuccessfully achieving that goal, Turkey reformed its domestic policy, similar to Russia, becoming more authoritarian politically. This led to further alienation for Turkey seeking out a more aligned ally. With both nations strategically position on each side of Europe, it was inevitable for them to come together. Both nations being criticized by Europe for their policies leading to corruption and human rights violations pushed them away from Washington under President Obama. It seems the current administration is willing to overlook those atrocities for some unknown purpose. While the United States is taking a step back from the Middle East it appears that Russia is strategically creating multiple alliances that will affect Europe from both sides. The relationship between Russia and Turkey grew even closer in July 2016, when there was an attempted coup of Erdogan. However, he was able to crush his opponents, receiving praise from Vladimir Putin and creating blowback from their United States and European allies. After which Erdogan traveled to Moscow twice after the coup to symbolize the relationship had been repaired and to personally thank Putin. This secured the completion of the deal that the United States and NATO warned Turkey from making with Russia – the sale of the S-400 air defense system. This was a major victory for Russia in the face of Europe, NATO, and the United States. For the first time, Turkey has shifted from purchasing military technology sold by the United States to an adversary of them, Russia. However, it is more symbolic than punitive. Even though Turkey is not one of Russia’s top ten exporting nations, it is probably the most important in the Middle Eastern region. Despite having economic relations, Russia and Turkey had divergent military goals in Syria. Russia supported the Assad regime and Turkey wanted to reclaim northern Syria but could not do so while the American troops were there. However, once the United States pulled the troops out of northern Syria, an opportunity arose for Turkey. Assad viewed the Kurds in northern Syria as terrorists and Turkey was going to be fighting them upon invasion. Even though Russia and Turkey had an economic relationship, Russia played both sides by arming the Kurds in their fight against Turkey while moving Russian troops to the border as well. This may have been seen as a way for Russia to express to Turkey, not to overextend itself.

Ever since the European Union failed to allow Turkey into its membership, Turkey has scoffed at it in its search for new alliances while defying suggestions from NATO. Russia has since elevated its relationship with Turkey and secured more of a presence in the Middle East. Even though the two disagree on certain operations they have found common ground on trade, especially of military technology. Russia is not a NATO member and therefore sees an opportunity to create a breakdown of the relationship between Turkey and NATO. Many NATO members have been at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their policies in the Middle East, mainly Syria. The Turkish-Syrian operation was viewed by Russia as an opportunity to help drive a wedge between NATO and Turkey. It appears that Russia is working the Middle East to create a coalition alliance amongst the most dominant nations in the region, including Iran who has a common rival – NATO. The connection could be made that Russia is trying to expand its sphere of influence into the Middle East and the United States is helping them by losing interest in that part of the world. According to Lindgaard and Pieper, “NATO has largely remained a bystander to the conflict in Syria. But the ramifications are clear: NATO member Turkey has coordinated policies closely with Russia and Iran…between 2016 and 2019, and also did not shy away from ordering unilateral military invasions at odds with security policies of European NATO members.”(15). This is not happening on its own in a vacuum. The United States being the global hegemon, has allowed this shift to take place by beginning to remove itself from Middle Eastern affairs under President Trump.
Scholars debating the strategy that President Trump is engaging in lean towards the realist view. Robert Jervis believes President Trump’s foreign policy falls within the realm of realism because the idea of realism itself is flexible. It can be used to fit different agendas that competing nations pursue. Many scholars seem to wonder why President Trump makes the international relations decisions that he does based on his ideology to “Make America Great Again.”  Jervis states, “Trump could be interpreted as bolstering American security and power, improving America’s economic position in the world, and reclaiming American superiority.”(pg10) President Trump has backed away from traditional allies pursuing individual economic and political relations with nations he feels would benefit the United States. Scholars could argue that this strategy itself is creating anarchy in a stable system that has existed for seventy years. Although realism is flexible, many realists worry about President Trump’s unpredictability stemming from his lack of stated direction and values needed to shine the beacon of American light on the world. As president, Trump boasts about his ability to make and break deals in the global arena. However, he does so, usually, without a backup plan or simply understanding the ripple effect consequences they entail. Jervis claims, “Trump is the maker and breaker of deals. And he does not worry about the reputational effects, wants to cultivate the reputation of being a mercurial hard-ass, and/or believes that the US has ‘go-it-alone’ power.” (pg12) Liberal internationalism seems to take a backseat with President Trump, which aligns with his callousness towards dictators who violate human rights. Another quote that emphasizes tradition, “Although many presidential campaigns in the post-World War II era were characterized by sharp differences in foreign policy views, there was an underlying consensus on key matters such as the importance of allies, the need for deep involvement abroad not only to contain the USSR in the Cold War but also to maintain institutions for order and stability, the advantages of reducing barriers to trade and investment, and some respect for human rights.” (pg4). This seems to be an indicator as to why he may not want to get involved in the Middle East or non-democratic nations to spread American values. By definition of neorealism with an emphasis on anarchy in the system, President Trump lives by this strategy. According to Jervis, President Trump believes, “The World Trade Organization? Harmful to the American economy. The United Nations? Worse than worthless. Market failures do not seem to worry him so long as he gains from the failure, or at least ahead of others.” (pg12). It is important to understand the person to understand why and how they make decisions that affect a nation, as well as the world, vis-a-vie the issue in Syria.
A similar strategy being discussed is Offshore Balancing. This strategy allows the United States to pull back from the global arena and focus more on its dominance in the western hemisphere. It maintains that the United States not police the world and intervene in other nation’s domestic troubles but, rather allow regional leading powers to put their check on neighboring countries and the United States only intervening when needed. Scholars, who debate this topic say this does not threaten the United States in its international primacy but allows for it to focus more on issues at home instead of spreading too thin abroad. Is President Trump trying to isolate the United States from the world or is he employing another kind of grand strategy? If he were an isolationist, he probably would engage in a complete retreat from world affairs. However, if he is using the strategy of offshore balancing he would want to engage in regions that are important and relevant to America, such as, Northeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Europe.(pg3) Since World War II the United States has had hegemonic influence over Europe but, there is still a concern that a regional hegemon, like Russia, could rise and enforce its influence over neighboring states dominating that hemisphere. The same concern exists in Northeast Asia. Some may debate that this is cause for concern with Russia making alliances in the Middle East on the opposite side of Europe. The Persian Gulf concern lies with the idea that a regional hegemon there will block the flow of oil to the rest of the world disrupting the United States’ energy economy. One could analyze that this could be why Russia is aligning itself with nations in the Middle East. Mearsheimer and Walt believe offshore balancing could have a positive effect for the United States, “By limiting the areas the U.S. military was committed to defending and forcing other states to pull their weight, it would reduce the resources Washington must devote to defense, allow for greater investment and consumption at home, and put fewer American lives in harm’s way.” (pg4). This method would force such nations to rely less on American military protection and financial investment and allow for stronger nations in the region to handle issues that could directly affect them. However, if any given situation becomes too overwhelming for the regional actor to handle, the United States may step in to assist on the side it feels benefits its interests. President Trump seems to be taking this position concerning military action. From the actions he takes, one could assess that, he has no interest in liberal internationalism and the spread of democracy which would require the United States’ diplomatic and military operations to move in the opposite direction from which it recently has taken. According to Mearsheimer and Walt, “…there are those who believe that Washington should reject liberal hegemony but keep sizable U.S. forces in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf solely to prevent trouble from breaking out. This low-cost insurance policy, they argue, would save lives and money in the long run, because the United States would not have to ride to the rescue after a conflict broke out.” (pg10). They do not believe this plan would work though and it is unclear if this is the position President Trump is taking or another hybrid form. Europe and the Middle East have different needs, in the sense that countries in each of those regions have different aspirations for a balance of power. Europe is believed to be less volatile with not one country that could dominate over the others, except for Russia being a wild card. The Middle East, on the other end of the spectrum, have less-developed nations residing who are all trying to claim their dominant place in the neighborhood, especially Iran. If President Trump is using the offshore balancing playbook to then allow Russia to take the lead in Syria makes perfect sense. If Russia can help to stabilize Syria under the Assad regime then the United States would be able to save money and lives by not interfering. This would have an immediate benefit but, may hinder our interests in the long term. Without American troops on the ground in Syria, we are unable to have control over the possibility of an ISIS resurgence, in addition to, Iran securing a pathway through northern Iraq across the border into northern Syria to assist in the funding and organization of terrorist groups that are not friendly to the United States, in addition to controlling the oil along the way. What is the domino effect of these events taking place?

How does NATO fit into all of this? Turkey and NATO have had a precarious relationship since its entrance into the alliance in 1952 with the United States questioning its value of contribution among the other members. When the Soviet Union dissolved in the nineties, Turkey felt its ability to contribute to NATO waning. It looked to expand its economic interests in the region while focusing on defending themselves against the Kurds. Since 2010, when President Obama visited Turkey to offer to strengthen the region through multilateralism while criticizing Erdogan’s style of leadership, relations between the United States, NATO, and Turkey have been on a downturn. Turkey knew that it had to find other alliances beyond the West to secure its regional dominance. Looking beyond the United States and Europe, Turkey found relations with Russia. The relationship seemed to be natural by design with both countries being suspicious of the West’s involvement in the Middle East, as well as, having authoritarian styles of governing. As an alternative to Turkey joining the EU, which it was rejected from, it has looked East to possibly becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China and Russia as a result. (pg6) As these alternative alliances are forming, the Trump administration is allowing it to happen without injecting American influence at all. On the surface, it appears that this does not benefit the United States economically in full. Yes, we will save money with military spending but, we are also losing money from possible investments that are heading elsewhere, in addition to not being able to influence oil production and export from the region. According to John Bolton, former National Security Advisor to President Trump, he stated in an interview with Axios, “it’s ‘highly questionable’ that Trump would stick with NATO through a second term. “I’m not averse to moving 9,000, 10,000 troops out of Germany if we’re going to move them to Poland or someplace else,” Bolton added. “But that’s not why he’s bringing those troops home. My first reaction [to Trump’s German troop drawdown announcement] was this is the beginning of the end.” There seems to be a trend with troop removal in areas we once had American interests in. It is not only John Bolton that feels this way. Several scholars believe that if President Trump is re-elected for a second term, he may feel emboldened to pull the United States out of NATO, leaving Europe wide open for a new aggressive alliance to encroach upon it.
By doing this research, it appears that the United States’ removal of American troops in northern Syria is a step in the direction of instability for the region, at minimum. Doing so removes the United States from taking part in shaping a path for the Middle East peace process while losing its ability to influence and gauge the environment that will affect our interests. The removal of American troops in Syria is one more way for Russia to rise up and expand its own sphere of influence over the region. This appears to be immediately successful on Russia’s part. They have successfully secured occupation and military technology deals that would have otherwise been held by the United States. Analyzing the big picture from a historical lens, the comparison could be made to that of the interwar period of 1919-1941 when the United States held back as a natural retreat from world affairs allowing the Nazis to gain momentum. With the Cold War is in the rearview mirror of history, it does not mean that Russia has given up wanting to expand its influence in alternative ways than that of the former communism.  Moving forward, it will be interesting to understand what the true goal of Russia is and how the United States, under President Trump, is expediting those goals by allowing them to fill the void we once occupied. With the United States out of the region in many ways, via Syria and the Iran nuclear deal, another situation to watch is if China starts to gain interest in the region as well. At this point, the situation is still being analyzed. However, Turkey appears to be a lucrative trading partner if the Chinese decide to invest in the region. Many developing paths have revealed themselves with the beginning of the American exodus of the Middle East under President Trump. We have not fully been able to analyze the repercussions of this current administration and its ripple effects throughout the world. At this point, it is unknown if the United States’ actions are allowing for other global actors, to fill the void, creating larger alliances, which will possibly lead to a large scale global conflict like World War II.

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