Analysis Of President Trump’s Syria Involvement Policy And Humanitarian Consequences

In December of 2018, President Trump announced a complete U.S military withdrawal from Syria, and was highly chastised by politicians on both sides of the political aisle. The predominant concern was that a vacuum of influence would be created, which Iran and Russia would take advantage of, possibly resulting in serious humanitarian consequences for some millions of Syrians still holding on for hope in their country. As a result of bipartisan domestic criticism, as well as that from European allies, a full-scale withdrawal hasn’t happened yet. There are deep displacement concerns among policy analysts, in regards to parts of northeastern Syria in particular. According to Refugees international, this region holds 2 million Syrians, many of which have already been displaced by terrorism and anti-terrorist operations. ISIS forces, which according to the pentagon, still number in the thousands in Syria, as well as international actors other than the U.S, are feared to be emboldened by such a withdrawal plan. President Erdogan of Turkey, for example, promised to enact a security operation in Northern Syria to target Kurdish groups. Furthermore, the Assad regime may also be emboldened, as well as its partners in Iran and Russia, who have been jointly planning a strike on Idlib for months now, which could worsen the refugee crisis.

While Trump has backed down on an instantaneous withdrawal, since his announcement on Twitter on January 7th 2019, a policy orientation towards leaving Syria seems to still exist. This paper will briefly analyze contemporary U.S foreign policy in Syria as related to humanitarian consequences, as well as analyzing American public opinion on the issue. Afterwards, this paper argues that the U.S should stay militarily involved in Syria, but if it chooses to leave, it should advance specific multilateral policy strategies in Syria. Through these strategies, a careful evacuation would not be significantly detrimental to the humanitarian situation in Syria. This paper also considers an argument from Adam Miller, who proposes completely leaving Syria, and evaluates this argument as related to humanitarian concerns. Furthermore, this paper argues that, in the case of continued involvement, U.S normative agendas might begin to be respected by other international actors in the crisis, as a result of these policies.

Trump is not the only contemporary president to face such issues. Obama also had challenges in terms of his foreign policy in Syria as related to humanitarian issues. The most poignantly evident part of his presidency regarding this issue, was the widespread criticism of his not enforcing the “red line” in Syria against the Assad regime in August of 2012. He warned that if Assad were to use chemical weapons against his own citizens, he would take decisive military action against the Syrian government. A year after this speech, Assad killed more than 1,400 civilians with sarin gas, and Obama did not follow through with military action. The international spectacle that this caused lead to a lot of criticism for the administration. Antony Blinken, a top Obama State Department and White House official, noted that the administration's reactions were a “diplomatic, not a military” success. Trump, however, in the first year of his presidency, opted to use military force against the Assad regime in a similar scenario, and worked with the UK and France to strike Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

Public opinion in general on the issue has indicated that Americans are divided on both support for the use of force for humanitarian purposes, as well as continued involvement in Syria in general. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans supported military strikes on Syria, while 43% disapproved. Republicans, with a support percentage of 80%, were even more enthusiastic than their Democratic peers (although this may be a function of having a Republican president conducting the strike). On the more general issue of Syrian involvement, a 2019 Pew Research poll displayed below finds that 43% of Americans say withdrawing American troops from Syria would be the right decision, while 45% say it would be the wrong decision. There is also a clear partisan divide on this issue, as nearly 60% of Republicans support a withdrawal, as opposed to 30% of Democrats. The partisan divide on the issue is even wider in terms of opinion on if Trump has an effective plan to withdraw. While a mere 28% of Americans believe that Trump has a good plan of withdrawal, 56% of Republicans believe Trump has a solid plan of withdrawal, while 5% of Democrats believe the same.

One last interesting poll finding related to the issue was published by the Washington Post. Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, seem to support military intervention/ involvement in Syria if framed as a humanitarian issue, as opposed to one of “foreign policy”. The survey carried out by the Washington Post found that one of the most highly cited reasons for acceptable military involvement abroad was “humanitarian purposes”.

While Trump did strike Syria on two occasions in a multilateral fashion, his overall disengagement plan is still widely viewed as problematic or nonexistent as indicated by the Pew Research polls above. There were some significant flaws in Trump’s withdrawal decision in 2018 that justify the bipartisan, and international criticism he received. Currently, 400 troops are slated to stay in Syria, as opposed to the complete removal of 2000 Trump announced beforehand. ISIS’s defeat was cited by Trump as a big reason as to why the removal is justified. However, already internally-displaced individuals could still be imperiled by a withdrawal of U.S troops. According to Refugees International, millions of displaced Syrians now living in Northern Syria fled from ISIS and subsequent counter-ISIS operations. While ISIS has been substantially weakened, a much more grave threat of new displacement by Turkish military action exists.

Turkey is committed to defeating Kurdish forces in the region, and has been working in tandem with Russia and Syria to attack the last rebel stronghold in the country, Idlib. The region of Idlib holds about 3 million civilians, including 1 million children, who were moved there from across the country because they would not submit to the Assad regime. The UN warned of a worsening displacement situation in the region as a result of future Russian and Turkish assaults on Idlib. Originally, these two countries attempted to form a demilitarization deal that would delineate a safe zone for civilians in Idlib. Unfortunately, this deal seems to have collapsed, and Russia intensified its airstrikes in response. Furthermore, Syrian forces renewed shelling against urban areas in southern Idlib, where thousands of civilians have sought refuge. The U.S has consistently supported the Kurds in the region, and a withdrawal of military backing, according to the Brookings institution, would embolden the enemies of the Kurds, including Turkey. The Assad government may resume major combat operations in Idlib as well. If this occurs, further civilian displacement is likely.

The current assault on Northern regions of Syria are not only forcing more internally-displaced people (IDP’s) to flood the Turkish border, but are damaging crucial civilian infrastructure in the region, such as homes, and even hospitals. According to the UN, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the Idlib governorate since the beginning of May, a staggering statistic. Iran, which is also vying for influence in Syria, is expected to soon begin a devastating joint ground-assault with the Assad regime. Trump has responded by tweeting that Assad “must not recklessly attack Idlib” and that Russia and Iran must not support a “potential human tragedy.” In targeting residential areas and killing aid workers, Russia and Assad seem to be testing Trump’s limits. So far, Trump has been silent on the Idlib issue.

Another aspect to consider is the massive cuts to Syrian aid that Trump oversaw last year. The figure was over $230 million, and while the international community has moved to contribute in place of the U.S, more funding will be needed to effectively mitigate the humanitarian consequences of continued assault in Northern Syria. The majority of IDPs in Idlib largely rely on humanitarian relief to survive, but humanitarian organizations and NGOs deliver this aid only 4 times a year. Even worse, at the end of 2018, the U.S. State Department evacuated all U.S. civilian personnel working on stabilization from Syria. As of May, several key IO’S and NGO’s including the UN have understandably completely stopped giving aid, citing the safety of their employees as violence in the region intensifies. A restoration of US commitment to aiding the desperate civilian population of Northern Syria is necessary.

Most policy analysts and advisors to the President argue for some sort of continued military presence in Syria, for very valid reasons. These include the fact that the U.S helps to prevent a resurgence of power in the ISIS survivors who are waiting for an opportunity to re-energize themselves. Secondly, an American presence acts as a buffer between the Turks and the Kurds. Thirdly, the U.S, in continuing to be militarily involved, would have some sort of position in future peace negotiations. Considering these, this paper agrees that staying in Syria is the most effective strategy that the U.S can pursue, in terms of preventing further humanitarian collapse in the region. However, in considering some of the background of U.S involvement in Syria as related to humanitarian issues, and the on-ground situation in Syria, this paper argues that a major withdrawal from Syria would not be necessarily devastating, if a variety of conditions are met beforehand. Firstly, the U.S should secure a deal with other NATO countries before withdrawing of U.S. forces, to ensure that the multinational force can prevent renewed fighting and thereby prevent further humanitarian suffering, as well as pressure greater multinational organizations (such as the UN) to commit to delivering humanitarian assistance. Such actions are particularly important in the regions of North East Syria as well as in Rukban, as I will highlight below. Secondly, the US needs to engage itself in direct diplomacy with several actors on the issue, including Russia, Turkey and Iran. Specifically, the U.S should make its withdrawal conditional on the completion and enforcement of the Sochi Deal that Russia and Turkey signed to. This deal, as I will explain below, ensures that Russia and Turkey would take steps to avoid military operations in Idlib, thereby reducing the chance of a humanitarian disaster. Finally, the U.S should commit to restoring its previously allocated humanitarian aid to Syria, in the form of the hundreds of millions that was cut. Such funding, when combined with the monetary assistance from IO’s, would help aid workers conduct their operations more effectively, and provide assistance to an adequate amount of people. Also to be considered, is an argument advanced by Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator. He and his co-author, Richard Sokolsky, claimed in an NPR article that, while leaving Syria is risky, staying involved is even riskier. While I agree that proper disengagement might not be as disastrous as is generally framed, he implies that advocating for the Kurds, even from afar, is a security risk and that we can’t compete with Iran or Russia. I will offer some arguments in response to these claims.

Firstly, any major withdrawal would necessitate a solid multinational/internationally cooperative force on the ground, as long as the civil war continues. Senator Lindsey Graham has been particularly vocal about his support for this, noting that preventing a resurgence of terrorist groups should not be the responsibility of one or two countries alone. The U.S needs to pressure the international community, and specifically, the E.U, to deploy troops into northeastern Syria. If this were to happen, a variety of potentially displacing scenarios might be averted. Said multinational force, according to Refugees International would help to deter fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces in Syria. As noted previously, Turkey would be emboldened if the US (which backs the kurds), takes a major step in withdrawing from Syria. A UN or NATO allied global force, however, would probably make Turkey more hesitant to take drastic, potentially displacing action in the Northeastern region of Syria.

Another function that global cooperation could serve is in the defense of an established safe zone for Syrian citizens. Trump himself has expressed his support for a safe zone being established for protecting civilians and minimize refugee burdens. Kurdish forces would likely also reside there, and have already called for international cooperation in crafting such a zone. According to Aldar Khalil, a top Syrian Kurdish official “If they [Europe] don’t meet their commitments, they are effectively abandoning us,” Khalil called on France, in particular, to work with the US to create a buffer zone along the border with Turkey. He said it could be modeled on the UN peace forces in Lebanon. “France can table a proposal to the Security Council on our protection, suggesting an international force between us and the Turks – of which it would be part – or to protect our airspace.” The Kurds clearly see multinational involvement as a more reassuring step forward, and Trump would be wise to secure this before leaving.

Secondly, the US needs to engage itself in direct diplomacy with several actors on the issue, including Russia, Turkey and Iran (increased diplomatic interaction with multiple actors involved in the issue). Leaving Syria without solidifying certain agreements from these individual countries could indirectly lead to a worse displacement crisis. One of the most paramount talks should be in regards to Turkish military action. As part of any exit plan, the Trump administration should ensure a valid agreement from Turkey that its military will not target or threaten Syrian Kurdish communities after the U.S. withdraws from Syria. This plan has been mentioned in a commitment set out by U.S. NSA John Bolton. As outlined above, President Erdogan considers military action necessary to push back Kurdish influence in northeast Syria. Furthermore, a significant threat in the region of Rukban exists in Syria. According to Al Jazeera, there are tens of thousands of IDP’s trapped in the region, near the Jordanian border. According to the UN, they are willing to evacuate, but have not been given any security guarantees.

The Trump administration should condition the U.S. withdrawal from Tanf and Rukban on a Russian guarantee that residents of Rukban be given safe passage to locations where their lives or freedom will not be threatened. As part of this plan, Russia should guarantee the safety of these IDPs during their evacuation. Also important, is the hypothetical Sochi Deal that would protect civilians in Idlib. It has proven to be tough to enforce, and the Trump administration should launch a concerted diplomatic effort to press Russia and the Assad regime to refrain from military operations that could displace civilians. As emphasized throughout this paper, a variety of factors make Idlib vulnerable to state assault, not least important being Hayat Tahrir al Sham increasing its presence in the region. Solidifying this deal would formally mandate the safety of IDP’s in Idlib.

Thirdly, if the US were to leave Syria militarily, it should restore the massive amounts of aid it cut to Syria, as $200 million funding that was previously earmarked for stabilization in northeast Syria. The U.S should also, as recommended by Refugees international, fully fund the international organizations and local NGOs that execute critical humanitarian services to the displaced people inside the region. This set of actions that the US should take on its own, seem to be the most unlikely during Trump’s term. However, they would lower the risk of humanitarian suffering in significant ways. Aid in these regions is desperately needed, and as emphasized above NGOs that work on the ground deliver crucial resources to IDPs in the region, as well as protection for displaced people in general. Low funding, according to the UNHCR, hampers its ability to do its work, and contributes to protracted internal displacement in Syria. Restoring aid might be a way for the Trump administration, (in its inclination to keep out Syrian refugees) to at least help from afar instead of having to open its arms. A robust funding commitment would allow the U.S to have some hand in the protection of IDP’s while not having soldiers in Syria. Also, funding needn’t be solely allocated to Syria, as Jordan is absorbing a refugee population that, when considered with the proportion of its native citizens, is massive. According to Refugees International, Jordan has temporarily closed its borders as a result. The United States and its partner donors should provide monetary assistance to Jordan to cover the costs of integrating displaced Syrians from Rukban as refugees, and commit to resettling a significant number of these displaced persons themselves. The shameful cuts to refugee admission in the US is also something that needs to be addressed. If the Sochi Deal, for example, were to collapse, and internally-displaced persons eventually become refugees leaving the country, the U.S should commit to being receptive to more Syrian refugees than it is now. This should be the case regardless, and current asylum policy is contradicting basic values purported to be held by Americans. Accordingly, public opinion data on Middle Eastern refugee asylum reflects this dissonance between our values and our opinions on the issue. According to the Anwar Sadat poll, there is public disagreement, reflected in the spread-out nature of responses on being open to refugees. A plurality of the total respondents surveyed report being not open at all to refugees from the Middle East (22%), as indicated by the chart below. There is, of course, a partisan effect, and while many on the religious right are self-identified evangelicals, such policy orientations aren’t consistent with the morals that characterize followers of Evangelical Christianity.

While a total pullout received rightful condemnation from various directions, a military withdrawal from Syria could be coupled with the three groups of actions outlined above, so as to minimize any indirect humanitarian consequences. Pressuring international organizations to be involved, as well as several individual actors, and personally contributing monetarily, would mitigate a military withdrawal if the U.S chooses to enact one. Some informal benefits may come out of the decision to establish the diplomatic agreements above. Turkey’s fractured relationship with the U.S (and subsequently, its warming relationship with Russia), can be addressed through increased cooperation. Of course, the U.S would have to avoid being seen as a pushover, and maintain that the safety of the Kurds is paramount. Trump is verbally committed to this, as he threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked the Kurds in Syria. The recommendations above would be unlikely to take place in Trump’s administration, however, and a retention of troops in Syria should be maintained because of this. Future administrations may vow to keep troops in Syria. However, any evacuation of military force must be accompanied by the recommendations above, and some sort of involvement in Syria is necessary to protect U.S interests in the region, as well as mitigate humanitarian concerns.

In an op-ed for NPR, Aaron David Miller notes that “leaving Syria is far less risky than staying”, and cites various reasons for this, such as the complexity of the ISIS issue, the supposed trouble that will come with supporting the Kurds, our purported inability to compete with Russia and Iran for influence in the region, and finally, the idea that the Syria issue is not a vital American interest. While I agree that leaving Syria (under the demanding commitments outlined above) would not be devastating, I take issue with various portions of his argument. In particular, he rationalizes that combating ISIS should be left up to the Syrian government. He is also of the opinion that our relationship with Turkey will not become better if we keep supporting the Kurds. He also, in explaining the role of influence, surmises that Syria's future means far more to Russia and Iran than it does the U.S, who “doesn’t even have a vital interest” in being involved in the region.

Miller’s first reason for wanting to leave is that the U.S cannot defeat ISIS. He claims that while the U.S has made significant gains in the fight against the terrorist group, “only Syrians can ultimately defeat ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked groups that feed on the sectarian grievances, corruption and poor governance that continue to power the jihadis”. He implies here that a true solution to the terrorism issue, is better domestic governance by the Syrian government. However, while the issue of better governance is legitimate to bring up, Miller should not minimize the role of other countries in helping to beat back terrorists. ISIS has contributed to a significant amount of internal displacement in Syria, and foreign military involvement has directly mitigated the displacing effects of terrorist activity in the region. Thanks to a U.S lead coalition, huge swaths of territory that ISIS has held have been freed. A continued foreign military presence (either U.S in the case of staying, or multinational if leaving) would ensure this status quo.

Miller’s second argument is that supporting Kurdish forces in Syria has costs that outweigh the benefits of doing so. In particular, he sees U.S support for the Kurds as making our relationship with Turkey colder, as well as with Iran (who also faces Kurdish separatists at home). Furthermore, he highlights that many groups/tribes are competing with the Kurds for sovereignty in northeast Syria, and that the U.S could potentially get sucked into these feuds. However, supporting the Kurds as allies has helped in terms of the war against terrorism in the region, as well as advance U.S interests in Syria. The Kurds have provided critical assistance in defeating ISIS, and have even helped with the humanitarian situation. For example, they host various refugee camps in the region, including the al-Hol refugee camp, which is run by Kurdish authorities with support from international organizations. Abandoning the Kurds militarily could indirectly worsen the humanitarian burden that the U.S will be expected to take on.

Thirdly, Miller notes that U.S lacks the interest, and capacity to be as influential in Syria as Iran and Russia. According to Miller, these two countries “have major allies and assets on the ground that outmatch what the U.S. would deploy there”, and in particular, their friendly relationship with Assad affords them a more powerful seat in negotiations. I argue, though, that in pushing for the diplomatic agreements above, the U.S may make a path towards cooperation with Russia, instead of competition in the future. Furthermore, the U.S’s lengthy backing of rebel forces would most certainly give it more influence at the beginning of negotiations, than if the U.S were to abandon its allies militarily.

In all, staying in Syria is the most effective strategy that the U.S can pursue, in terms of preventing further humanitarian collapse in the region. However, in the case of withdrawal, only the demanding set of requirements above would prevent a deterioration of the displacement crisis in Syria. In some respects, because the U.S (or Trump) is not seen as multilateralism-friendly, it would be difficult for the U.S to solidify the deals and conditions set above for withdrawal, so staying militarily would certainly be a simpler choice. As a congressional panel of Syria experts last week warned against withdrawal, it seems continued involvement is still highly encouraged. Citing Russia’s prestige in the region as a threat, the group advised that the U.S reassert its commitment to diplomacy, as well as accept more refugees to send an 'important signal to both European allies and regional host countries'. Keeping troops in Syria (as long as the conflict rages on), is foreseeable, but in the case of withdrawal from the conflict, meeting the above conditions would minimize any deterioration of the humanitarian situation within Syria. To be fair, such steps should be taken now, even with U.S military involvement in Syria. If the Trump campaign wins again in 2020, is hard to foresee a drastic increase in willingness to employ diplomacy/ multilateralism, as well as receptiveness to Syrian refugees. If a new president takes office, however, they will be tasked with repairing the U.S’s global image in terms of humanitarian involvement.


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  2. Leroux, Valerie. “Don't Abandon Us, Syrian Kurds Tell Europe.” News | MSN. February 18, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.
  3. Al Jazeera. 'Syria's War: NGOs Suspend Aid to Embattled Idlib Province.' News | Al Jazeera. May 11, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.
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  5. Ward, Alex. 'How Obama's 'red Line' Fiasco Led to Trump Bombing Syria.' Vox. April 15, 2018. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  6. Kreps, Sarah, and Sarah Maxey. 'Americans Feel a Moral Obligation to Help Humanitarian Victims (like Those in Syria) with Military Force.' The Washington Post. April 10, 2018. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  7. Gallup, Inc. 'Snapshot: Half of Americans Approve of Strikes on Syria.' April 24, 2018. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  8. Miller, Aaron David, and Richard Sokolsky. 'Opinion: Leaving Syria Is Far Less Risky Than Staying.' NPR. January 19, 2019. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  9. Alaaldin, Ranj. 'What the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria Means for ISIS, Iran, and Kurdish Allies.' Brookings. December 21, 2018. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  10. Rogin, Josh. 'Only Trump Can save Syria's Idlib, but Time Is Running out.' The Washington Post. May 09, 2019. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  11. Khodr, Zeina. 'UN Discuss Evacuation of Syrian Refugees Trapped at Rukban Camp.' News | Al Jazeera. March 28, 2019. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  12. Telhami, Shibley, and Stella Rouse. 'American Views on Immigration and Refugees (March - April 2019).' SADAT Home. April 2019. Accessed May 17, 2019.
  13. 'Syrian Camp at 20 times Its Capacity, Humanitarian Crisis Underway | CBC News.' CBCnews. April 03, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.
09 March 2021
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