US President Donald Trump in his first cabinet meeting of the year has signaled a massive shift in foreign policy in the Middle East. Trump has reportedly told his national security adviser John Bolton that once US forces exit Syria, Iran “can do what they want” in the war-torn country.
This new position is in stark contrast to Bolton’s previously stated position that the U.S. would continue to pose an opposition to Iran’s ambitions and US forces would not leave Syria "as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders."
This fresh remark on Syria is bound to send fresh consternation across the U.S. government’s state and defence departments along with the US’s allies.
Trump’s sudden decision in December 2018 to withdraw 2000 US special forces deployed in Syria led to the resignation of US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. Mattis was opposed to withdrawing US troops which have been deployed to serve as advisors and trainers to Syrian Democratic Forces fighting to defeat Islamic State fighters in Syria.
Trump’s fresh statement is bound to encourage Iran and Russia who have supported the continuation of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Iran has also strategically positioned itself in Iraq and Syria.
The withdrawal of US forces also sets the stage for a possible faceoff between Turkey and Kurdish-dominated Syrian forces that have been the chief U.S. partner against the Islamic State.
The US President’s statement is also contradictory to what his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said in October 2018. Pompeo while speaking about US’s objective in Syria had said, “"Defeating ISIS, which was once our primary focus, continues to be a top priority, but it will now be joined by two other mutually reinforcing objectives," Pompeo said in October. "These include a peaceful and political resolution to the Syrian conflict and the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria."
On Thursday, Pompeo acknowledged that US forces were leaving but insisted that the United States would continue its mission of countering the Islamic State and Iran. "The counter-Iran campaign continues," Pompeo told news outlet Newsmax. "We'll do all of those things. . . . We will simply do it at a time when the American forces have departed Syria."