Trump likely to renew his war against ‘endless wars’

If he wins the White House, it is likely he will still want to pull the US out of the seemingly endless Middle East conflicts

Trump likely to renew his war against ‘endless wars’

In December 2018, then US President Donald Trump flew into the Ain al-Assad airbase in western Iraq to wish the troops a ‘Merry Christmas’.

“We have no plans at all to withdraw from Iraq,” he told them. “Our troops will remain in Iraq to prevent the resurgence of IS (the Islamic State), safeguard American interests, and also monitor Iran’s activities. And we will monitor.”

The visit caused a rumpus when Trump insisted that the then Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi come to al-Assad base after Abdul Mahdi invited him to Baghdad. Still, it was noteworthy for Trump’s insistence that the US was staying in Iraq.

However, that was not his stance on US military presence in Syria. “I have informed the generals of our need to withdraw,” he told journalists in reference to Syria.

Not our problem

He said it was “time for others to handle the conflict, " adding that when the US intervened in Syria, “it was supposed to be for three or four months... that was many years ago”.

At al-Assad, he said: “We’re not nation-building. Rebuilding Syria will require a political solution. It’s a solution that should be paid for by its very rich neighbouring countries, not the United States. Let them pay for it. And they will.”

Trump insisted that the US was staying in Iraq. That was not his stance on US military presence in Syria.

In terms of his thinking, it could not have been clearer. There is no indication that if Trump returns to the White House, he will change his mind.

During his presidency from 2016-20, Trump's foreign policy in the Middle East centred on exerting maximum pressure on Iran. This underscored the strategic importance of US forces in Iraq, to help contain Iran.

Trump's thinking does not align that of the Pentagon or some of America's intelligence services.

They see the continuation of US forces in both countries as important for a unified counter-terrorism mission and to empower US allies like the Iraqi army and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

National interests

To Trump, Iraq and Syria are different. For him, Syria is in a state of civil conflict unrelated to vital American interests. He was also mindful of the detrimental impact US troops in Syria had on US-Turkey relations.

His call to withdraw aligns with a 2016 presidential campaign pledge he made to withdraw American troops from "endless wars".

It may also reflect his admiration for authoritarian leaders, as he lavished praise on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has now led Turkey—a NATO ally—for 21 years, first as prime minister, then latterly as president.

His call to withdraw aligns with a 2016 presidential campaign pledge he made to withdraw American troops from "endless wars".

Indeed, Trump's decision in October 2019 to pull US troops out of Syria was made abruptly after a conversation with Erdogan, and without consulting his aides.

Erdogan's objective is to disband the SDF's presence in north-eastern Syria. That goal was impeded by the US military's presence.

Institutional opposition

Trump's call to withdraw was never fully enacted due to institutional inertia and substantial bipartisan criticism of the policy. Should he re-enter the White House, he is likely to encounter the same strong opposition.

While Trump has not yet outlined his foreign policy regarding the Middle East, including the US presence in Syria and Iraq, his history suggests that he is unlikely to alter his view.

Stubborn though he may be, however, both institutions and public opinion have previously been shown capable of changing his mind, so his views—particularly those pertaining to US national security interests—may not be set in stone.

Should Trump reassume the presidency, his capacity to effect change is expected to remain undiminished.

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