America’s Withdrawal From Syria: Politics of Betrayal in Historical Context

By Karim Elkady

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America’s military forces from northeastern Syria and redeploy some of them into Iraq has attracted widespread condemnation. The Economist described his decision as a betrayal to the Kurds that will “blow America’s credibility and will take years to mend.” Yet as straightforward as this claim may seem, the framing of Trump’s decision as a betrayal does not allow for a balanced assessment and realistic interpretation of its motivation. The fact of the matter is the United States has made analogous military withdrawals in comparaable circumstances before when it intervened in areas peripheral to its national interests, such as Syria. In such circumstances, America’s intervention does not serve a clear vital interest and less costly policy options might exist that could still protect America’s peripheral interests without risking long-term attachment to a specific area.

It is understandable why many condemned Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops as the move paved the way for Turkey to invade northern Syria, inflicting a human cost on the civilian population in the area. Additionally, the decision signaled that the United States was turning its back on its partner, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), leaving it to fend for itself against the Turkish military. Finally, it created an opportunity for ISIS to regroup and potentially recreate a space for itself—even though the United States successfully killed its leader and a Russia-Turkey agreement emerged to establish a safe zone. Having said that, Trump’s decision has many precedents in America’s long history of military intervention and conflict, making it less of an anomaly than widely assumed.

To begin with, the Kurds of Iraq have experienced similar “betrayals” from the United States before. In March of 1975, President Richard Nixon’s administration stopped assisting the Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq after the Shah of Iran and Baathist regime in Iraq reached an agreement in Algiers, whereby Iraq agreed to settle its border dispute with Iran over Shatt al-Arab. In return, Iran ended the flow of aid to the Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq. After signing the agreement, Saddam Hussein unleashed Iraq’s military might against the Kurdish Peshmerga and the civilian population, causing enormous human suffering. Mostafa Barazani, the leader of the Kurdish movement in Iraq at the time, pleaded with Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state, that the United States had “a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tacitly approved the Soviet Union’s plan to create a sphere of influence in the Baltic states as well as Eastern and Central Europe at the Tehran and Yalta conferences of 1943 and 1945, despite the contributions of Poles and other Europeans to the Anglo-American war efforts. To entice Joseph Stalin to join the U.S. military campaign against Japan in the Pacific and to encourage him to cooperate in the postwar period, the United States and Britain chose to turn a blind eye to the Soviet Union’s ambitions to dominate Eastern and Central Europe. This Anglo-American policy, which became famously known as the “Western Betrayal,” attracted widespread condemnation at the time from political and intellectual circles in Europe and America. More than 50 years later, on May 7, 2001, President George W. Bush apologized for Yalta and asserted that “the captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.”

To extract itself from an “endless war” in Vietnam, the Nixon administration reached the Paris Agreement with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1973. After many years of American-South Vietnamese partnership, the agreement ended America’s commitment to South Vietnam and paved the way for North Vietnam and the Vietcong to take over Saigon and reunite Vietnam once more into one Communist country. In the process of reunification, thousands of South Vietnamese suffered death, injuries, and displacement.

In October 1993, President Bill Clinton ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Somalia in order to remove soldiers from harm’s way after Americans died in a firefight against a Somali faction that refused to disarm and implement United Nations Security Council resolutions on Somalia. Clinton’s decision to withdraw risked the credibility of both the United States and the UN. However, the lack of public and congressional support for an open-ended American military presence in Somalia, absence of a clear and vital national interest, strategic insignificance of Somalia at the time, plus America’s general aversion to the loss of more soldiers all contributed to Clinton’s decision.

Finally, President Barack Obama withdrew the United States’ forces from Iraq in 2011 to fulfill his campaign promise of ending America’s war of choice. Obama’s decision permitted Nouri al-Maliki’s government to return to a politics of sectarian violence against the Sunni population that ultimately facilitated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014. A similar situation might arise in Afghanistan when and if the United States reaches an agreement with the Taliban that will end its longest war.

The bottom line is that the United States has done this before; thus, Trump’s decision is not unfamiliar. No doubt his decision is horrific for America’s Kurdish partners on the ground. However, this situation can happen when the United States intervenes militarily in areas where its objectives are unclear, not necessarily serving a vital national interest, and public support for those interventions is unsustainable. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences can be the abandonment of America’s partners in the face of disastrous outcomes.  

Karim Elkady is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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