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Foreign policy analysis on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from northern Syria in 2019
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By Fatma Tawfik 

Abstract:

This paper outlines a foreign policy analysis on President Trump's decision to withdraw from northern Syria in 2019. Based on an individual level of analysis (constructing national interest approach), the paper clarifies the reasons behind this decision and analyzes President Trump's language, perceptions, ideology, norms, and identity.

Keywords: President Trump, Syria, United States, Foreign policy   

Introduction:

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the United States has played a large role in the fight against ISIS,[1] starting with President Obama’s launch of a US air campaign against ISIS in 2014,[2] to President Trump declaring a complete defeat of ISIS in December 2018.[3] This declaration was an expression of his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria.[4] In one of his interviews, President Trump announced that ISIS prisoners held by the Kurds are not the responsibility of the US, but rather the responsibility of neighboring Syrian countries as well as European countries, Iran, Iraq, and even Russia.[5]

In October 2019,[6] President Trump ordered the withdrawal of the entire US presence from northern Syria.[7] That decision was considered a green light for Turkey to begin operating in Syria against the Kurds.

The approach:

To analyze President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria in 2019, this paper will examine that decision through the individual level of analysis by using the ‘constructing national interest’ approach. The constructing national interest approach aims to understand how national interests are constructed though examining in further detail the process of interpretation and the representation from which national interest emerged.[8] This analysis attempts to understand how the American withdrawal from Syria became of national interest to the United States by exploring the process of interpretation held by state actors or officials (in this case, President Trump) and how the situation is interpreted through factors such as perceptions, norms, language, identity, and ideology.

President Trump’s perceptions:

1) President Trump perceives that the war against ISIS is over due to the victory of the United States.[9]

2) President Trump also believes that the Kurds, the biggest ally of the United States, are only temporary allies until the US manages to defeat ISIS, claiming that the Kurds used the United States for their own sake and cannot be permanent allies as they did not help the United States in World War 2.[10]  

3) President Trump claims that ISIS prisoners represent no danger to the United States even if they manage to escape from Kurdish prisons, as they will flee to Europe, not the United States.[11]

4) President Trump believes that since ISIS has been defeated by almost 97%, it is not the United States’ responsibility to finish this fight, but rather the responsibility of other countries near Syria, such as European countries.[12]

5) President Trump believes that European countries should repatriate ISIS prisoners to Europe, as he claims that they originally came from there.[13]

6) President Trump believes that NATO is taking advantage of the US due to the enormous funding required to fight a European enemy (ISIS) and that the other countries in NATO pay a small fraction compared to the United States.[14]

President Trump’s norms:

1) As a dogmatic leader, President Trump has an operational code, which is “America first.” He promised that if elected he would get American troops back to the United States.[15]

2) One of President Trump’s campaign promises was that the United States would stay out of the Syrian civil war, as it is not a priority.[16]

3) President Trump made a campaign promise that he would keep the United States out of endless wars.[17]

Identity:

One of President Trump’s main campaign promises was to make America great again and to restore the United States as a supreme power.[18] Consequently, President Trump prioritized certain objectives to achieve during his presidency, including his economic war against China, the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, and the defeat of ISIS.[19] In one of President Trump’s speeches, he stated that the United States had enough of interfering in other countries’ borders and should only concentrate on their border.[20]

As mentioned before, President Trump believes that ISIS is already defeated by almost 97%,[21] thus the problem of Syria’s civil war is no longer a priority and neighboring countries of Syria should manage the repatriation of remaining ISIS fighters and ISIS prisoners held by the Kurds. 

Language:

The language that President Trump used in his identification of the problem and the actors and countries involved in this issue include the following:

1) President Trump expressed his view on the Kurds when he said that “[…] we never agreed to protect the Kurds,” demonstrating that the Kurds are not a permanent ally of the United States.[22] Another example of the United States’ temporary alliance with the Kurds was evident when President Trump said that “[…] they didn’t help us in World War 2, they didn’t help us in Normandy.”[23]

2) President Trump demanded that European countries “take the people back,” meaning ISIS prisoners or families of ISIS fighters that originally came to the region from Europe.[24] President Trump also said that European countries think of the United States as a “fool” and are using funding from the US to fight ISIS and keep the fighters in prison.[25] President Trump further remarked that he would give European countries “30 days” to take back ISIS prisoners. European countries refused this ultimatum, which became one of the main reasons why President Trump withdrew troops from northern Syria, saying that “ […] maybe they won’t be saying no now”  in reference to European countries’ defiance.[26] Thus, the United States’ withdrawal from Syria was intended as a lesson for the European countries.  

3) President Trump expressed his view of President Erdogan in one of his speeches by using phrasing such as “[…] I am a big fan of president Erdogan,”[27] while making it clear that Turkey and the US have a growing economic relationship and subsequently defining Turkey as a  “strategic ally.” In another speech, President Trump discussed his relationship with President Erdogan by explaining that he and President Erdogan are “very good friends for a long time.”[28]

4) President Trump referenced oil in northern Syria when he said that “[…] we left troops behind only for the oil,” “[…] we are keeping the oil,” and “[…] we have the oil.”[29] President Trump’s mention of the oil sector in northern Syria shows that the main aim of the United States' presence in Syria is for economic value, namely the use of Syrian oil.  

5) President Trump expressed that the United States “[…] had only 50 people” in northern Syria as a way of reducing the importance of the existence of U.S troops in that area.[30]

Ideology:

Trumpism, the ideology espoused by President Trump, consists of populism, a business-like approach, and an anti-establishment attitude.[31] Populism is associated with radicalism and socialist movements[32] and is defined as not only a political, but also an emancipatory force highlighting “liberal democracy as the problem and radical democracy as the solution.”[33] From this point of view, we can observe President Trump’s perspective on the European refusal of his order to repatriate ISIS prisoners, even after he warned them, as indicative of Trump's use of repressive force within possible means.

The second factor is the business-like approach, which stems from the influence of President Trump’s business background on his political orientation.[34] We can observe this business influence in foreign policy in one of his speeches on the importance of Turkey as an ally due to the growing economic relationship between the United States and Turkey, as well as in another speech when President Trump focused on the oil fields in Syria as the sole important factor, rather than the war against ISIS. 

Conclusion:

This paper shows the effect of President Trump's perceptions, norms, identity, language, and ideology in his interpretation of the situation in northern Syria that spurred him to withdraw from the region in the national interest of the United States of America.

Whether his perceptions stem from the view that the United States already defeated ISIS and did not need to be there any longer, the belief that European countries are using the United States, or his business background that transformed Turkey into an economic ally, it seems that the decision did not serve the national interests of the United States after all, as President Trump ultimately had to engage in a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds, increase troops at the Syrian border to protect Israel, and return troops to northern Syria to protect oil fields.

 

References:

1) Books:

Mudde, C., & and Kaltwasser, C.R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

2) Articles:

Beeman, R. (2018) What Are the Three Characteristics of Trumpism?: A Discourse Analysis of Trump’s Four Major Campaign Speeches. Political Analysis: Vol. 19, Article 2, page 10. Retrieved from https://scholarship.shu.edu/pa/vol19/iss1/2

Weldes, J. (1996). Constructing National Interests. European Journal of International Relations, 2(3), 284.    

3) Other sources:

Reports:

Foreign Policy in the Trump Administration. (2017). Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/foreign-policy-in-the-trump-administration/

Websites:

Johnson, J. (2016, November 28). ‘I will give you everything.’ Here are 282 of Donald trump's campaign promises. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/i-will-give-you-everything-here-are-282-of-donald-trumps-campaign-promises/2016/11/24/01160678-b0f9-11e6-8616-52b15787add0_story.html

Specia, M. (2019, October 15). Winners and Losers in Trump’s Troop Withdrawal from Syria. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/world/middleeast/trump-syria-troop-withdrawal.html

Feaver, P., & Inboden, W. (2019, November 4). The Realists Are Wrong About Syria. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/04/the-realists-are-wrong-about-syria/

The Associated Press. (2018, December 19). A look at US involvement in Syria's civil war. Retrieved from https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2018/12/19/a-look-at-us-involvement-in-syrias-civil-war/

3) Online clips:

ABC News. (2019, October 21). Trump: US never agreed to protect Kurds in Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wICKnUdewY                               

CBS News. (2019, October 7). “I'm not siding with anybody,” Trump says of Syria withdrawal [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZvX8nJUVs

CNBC. (2019, October 7). President Trump answers questions about Syria, Turkey [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DajJof7hzKU

CNBC. (2019, November 13). Trump: “I am a big fan” of Turkey's president [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKTj8bhYWqg

MSNBC. (2019, October 9). Trump’s Bizarre Reason for Abandoning the Kurds in Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9pnXpi2Ycc

PBS NewsHour. (2019, November 13). Watch: Trump meets with Turkey President Erdogan at the White House [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMW--_ZA3rk

The Sun. (2019, October 8). Trump on why the US is withdrawing troops from Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8d_NecyqRc


[1] The Associated Press. (2018, December 19). A look at US involvement in Syria's civil war. Retrieved from https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2018/12/19/a-look-at-us-involvement-in-syrias-civil-war/

[2] IDEM.

[3] The New York Times. (2019, October 15). Winners and losers in Trump’s troop withdrawal from Syria. Retrieved from  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/world/middleeast/trump-syria-troop-withdrawal.html

[4] IDEM.

[5] CNBC. (2019, October 7). President Trump answers questions about Syria, Turkey [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DajJof7hzKU

[6] Feaver, P., & Inboden, W. (2019, November 4). The Realists Are Wrong About Syria. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/04/the-realists-are-wrong-about-syria/

[7] IDEM.

[8] Weldes, J. (1996). Constructing National Interests. European Journal of International Relations, 2(3), 284.    

[9] Specia, M. (2019, October 15). Winners and Losers in Trump’s Troop Withdrawal from Syria. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/world/middleeast/trump-syria-troop-withdrawal.html

[10] MSNBC. (2019, October 9). Trump’s Bizarre Reason for Abandoning the Kurds in Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9pnXpi2Ycc

[11] IDEM.

[12] CBS News. (2019, October 7). “I'm not siding with anybody,” Trump says of Syria withdrawal [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZvX8nJUVs

[13] MSNBC. (2019, October 9). Trump’s Bizarre Reason for Abandoning the Kurds in Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9pnXpi2Ycc

[14] IDEM.

[15] IDEM.

[16] Johnson, J. (2016, November 28). ‘I will give you everything.’ Here are 282 of Donald trump's campaign promises. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/i-will-give-you-everything-here-are-282-of-donald-trumps-campaign-promises/2016/11/24/01160678-b0f9-11e6-8616-52b15787add0_story.html

[17] IDEM.

[18] IDEM.

[19] Foreign Policy in the Trump Administration. (2017). Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/foreign-policy-in-the-trump-administration/

[20] PBS NewsHour. (2019, November 13). Watch: Trump meets with Turkey President Erdogan at the White House [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMW--_ZA3rk

[21] CBS. (2019, October 7). “I'm not siding with anybody,” Trump says of Syria withdrawal [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZvX8nJUVs

[22] ABC News. (2019, October 21). Trump: US never agreed to protect Kurds in Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wICKnUdewY

[23] MSNBC. (2019, October 9). Trump’s Bizarre Reason for Abandoning the Kurds in Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9pnXpi2Ycc

[24] The Sun. (2019, October 8). Trump on why the US is withdrawing troops from Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8d_NecyqRc

[25] IDEM.

[26] IDEM.

[27] CNBC. (2019, November 13). Trump: “I am a big fanof Turkey's president [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKTj8bhYWqg

[28] PBS NewsHour. (2019, November 13). Watch: Trump meets with Turkey President Erdogan at the White House [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMW--_ZA3rk

[29] CNBC. (2019, November 13). Trump: “I am a big fanof Turkey's president [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKTj8bhYWqg

[30] The Sun. (2019, October 8). Trump on why the US is withdrawing troops from Syria [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8d_NecyqRc

[31] Beeman, R. (2018) What Are the Three Characteristics of Trumpism?: A Discourse Analysis of Trump’s Four Major Campaign Speeches. Political Analysis: Vol. 19, Article 2, page 5. Retrieved from https://scholarship.shu.edu/pa/vol19/iss1/2

[32] IDEM.

[33] Mudde, C., & and Kaltwasser, C.R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

[34] Beeman, R. (2018) What Are the Three Characteristics of Trumpism?: A Discourse Analysis of Trump’s Four Major Campaign Speeches. Political Analysis: Vol. 19, Article 2, page 10. Retrieved from https://scholarship.shu.edu/pa/vol19/iss1/2

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