Russian Flags Over an American Base

Russian soldiers walk past a Russian military police armoured vehicle at a position in the northeastern Syrian city Kobani, October 2019.

President Donald Trump’s erratic policy shifts on Syria this fall have planted the seeds for new security threats to the United States and its allies—and Americans are noticing.

The zigs and zags of Trump’s approach to Syria—announcing a full withdrawal of U.S. troops one week then sending U.S. troops back to “secure the oil” the next—opened the door to new security threats, including the revival of ISIS, a humanitarian crisis, and a continued expansion of Russia’s destructive role in Syria and the broader Middle East. In addition to these immediate concerns, there are the long-term effects that will play out for years to come, such as the doubt cast on America’s reliability as a security partner and the troubling signal that U.S. foreign policy prioritizes protecting oil over human life.

In a dismaying symbol of how this vacuum has been filled, Russian troops actually raised the Russian flag over Kobani airfield after they took command of the former U.S. airbase—an image that has already been played up by the Russian propaganda machine.

In addition to these immediate concerns, there are the long-term effects that will play out for years to come, such as the doubt cast on America’s reliability as a security partner and the troubling signal that U.S. foreign policy prioritizes protecting oil over human life.

The American people are well aware of these concerns. According to a Gallup poll conducted after Trump’s Syria shifts, a strong majority of Americans (57 percent) disapprove of Trump’s handling of the situation in Syria. Although many voters aren’t likely following the details of Trump’s confusing shifts in granular detail, recent research conducted by the Center for American Progress found that Trump’s approach to national security is not popular among the American public.

Trump is increasingly viewed as a man without a plan on national security, and his approach to Syria reinforces that perception. Concerns about Trump’s approach to Syria are very likely linked to views about the possible increased threat of terrorism. CAP research found that protecting the U.S. homeland from enemy attacks and terrorism remains the overriding foreign policy concern of a majority of voters (63 percent). No other issue receives such priority, and concerns transcend partisan lines.

Just after Trump announced his Syria policy shift that opened the door for a dangerous Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency warned that ISIS would work to exploit the withdrawal to revive itself, potentially squandering the military gains made over the past five years. Beyond the increased terrorism threat, U.S. partners in the region—such as Israel and Jordan—now feel more vulnerable because of the chaos in Syria and the lack of a rational strategic approach from the United States.

Trump’s erratic approach has broader implications for an unmoored U.S. foreign policy. It may not surprise many people that Russia has wound up as one of the biggest beneficiaries of this strategic morass. However, Russia is just one of several countries that has taken advantage of the United States under Trump.

Since coming into office, the President Trump has repeatedly submitted to Russian interests on the world stage. The president’s reckless decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria without a plan or coordination with partners on the ground has resulted in a humanitarian disaster and a strategic blunder. As discussed in a recent CAP issue brief, the decision and the subsequent Turkish incursion into previously Kurdish-controlled territories:

… sparked further violence, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and forced the SDF to cut a deal with the Assad regime and its Russian backers. It has also shattered American credibility and set off a mad dash by all sides to fill the security vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal.

To be clear, this was not the unavoidable consequence of a messy foreign policy decision in a complex situation—rather, it was the foreseeable outcome of a rash decision. Going back to at least 2015, a resurgent Russia has sought to expand its influence on the world stage and paid special attention to the Middle East and Syria in particular. Moscow has long backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, eventually deploying Russian troops to shore up the regime against U.S.-backed opposition fighters. And, in the process, Russia has worked with the Assad regime to murder hundreds of thousands of Syrians, including by launching vicious airstrikes intentionally targeting civilians and hospitals. These actions have degraded the rules of war and shifted the goalposts on what the world deems acceptable in terms of humanitarian standards. Ideas, such as the responsibility to protect civilians, have been damaged in the face of Russia’s actions and the collective in action of the West.

More important than Russia’s military interests in Syria—the country hosts Moscow’s only overseas military base outside the former Soviet Union—are President Vladimir Putin’s strategic goals. By protecting Assad from the Syrian rebels and Western powers, Putin seeks to establish  himself as the one power that can prevent regime change. He wants to send a clear message that if you side with Russia, he will do everything to keep you in power—even if you deliberately target civilians and use chemical weapons.

But Trump’s inexplicable affinity for Moscow’s worldview goes far beyond Syria. Just this week, Trump once again appeared to actively undermine NATO during the gathering of the alliance’s leaders in London. This has been the pattern throughout his entire presidency, with Trump reportedly calling for U.S. withdrawal from NATO and openly attacking some of the most vulnerable NATO members. Putin views NATO as Russia’s main strategic adversary, making Trump’s attacks on the alliance a strategic win for Putin. While Trump’s strategic servility toward Putin may start with NATO and Syria, there endless decisions made by Trump that have helped Putin accomplish his goals.

When historians look back on 2019, they will see that President Trump weakened America’s ability to address real security threats, such as terrorism, and opened the door for a continued expansion of Russia’s influence in the Middle East and beyond. Beyond the impeachment investigations and Trump’s ongoing invitations to foreign powers to interfere in America’s elections, national security is not currently a prominent feature of the national policy conversation. That being said, as the data shows, Americans are noticing that Trump’s approach is making America vulnerable again.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. James Lamond is a senior policy adviser at the Center.