It’s hard for me to characterize President Trump’s intention to quickly withdraw US forces from Syria other than as a retreat ceding ground to the Assad regime, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and its militias. Although the stated mission of the force has been to defeat ISIS and train Syrian and Kurdish forces to maintain stability in the region east of the Euphrates, it has done much more in that its presence has restored a degree of normalcy to the region that has been lacking since ISIS imposed its rule.
The decision has not gone down easily with Administration officials or with members of the Republican Party. The New York Times reported that “Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior national security officials have tried to dissuade Mr. Trump from a wholesale troop withdrawal, arguing that the significant national security policy shift would essentially cede foreign influence in Syria to Russia and Iran at a time when American policy calls for challenging both countries.”
Moreover, the Pentagon and NATO allies are concerned that a premature withdrawal will not leave an adequate force in place to continue to eliminate ISIS, which is increasingly turning to guerilla tactics. It also sends the wrong message to other local fighters that the US is attempting to recruit, according to Pentagon officials, “from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia.”
As recently as December 11, Brett H. McGurk, the United States envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, said that continuing to train Syrian security forces as American troops are doing, “will take some time.” “The military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Mr. McGurk told reporters. “We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave. So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, noted earlier this month that the United States had trained only about 20 percent of Syrian forces required to stabilize areas captured from Islamic State. Aa Pentagon sourced opined that the President, given his domestic problems, may unfortunately be looking to “divert attention away from the series of legal challenges confronting him over the recent days.”
In an article in Defense One, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has recently returned from Syria, wrote that “If the US quits now, there are four winners: ISIS, Assad, Russia, and Iran.”
A Reuters story made a similar argument: “A decision to pull out completely, if confirmed, would raise doubts about how to prevent a resurgence of the militant group, undercut US leverage in the region, and undermine diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war now in its eighth year.”
It noted that “News of a full US military withdrawal drew immediate criticism from some of President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, who said leaving would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran, which both support Syrian President Bashar al Assad.” Reuters also reported that “Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally but generally a foreign policy hawk, said a withdrawal would have ‘devastating consequences’ for the United States in the region and throughout the world. “An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” according to Mr. Graham.
Bloomberg quoted Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who said that “If we withdraw then who fills the vacuum, who is able to stabilize and that is the million dollar question. The timing is hard to understand.”
In its coverage of the news of the announcement, CNN noted that “Even though the US will continue to maintain troops in Iraq with the capability of launching strikes into Syria, a US withdrawal of ground forces would fulfill a major goal of Syria, Iran, and Russia and risks diminishing US influence in the region.”
And Rep. Ed Royce, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out, “The limited number of US forces in Syria is critical to rooting out these terrorists and stopping Iran from moving fighters and missiles to Israel’s doorstep. Our presence is also key to helping leverage a political transition to end Syria’s civil war. The last administration showed what happens when arbitrary political deadlines – rather than reality on the ground – dictate policy in war zones. We must learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.”
Leaving behind the allies we have been training, abandoning stabilization efforts in the region, opening the area for Iranian control through its proxy forces, and enabling Turkey to hammer the Kurdish forces that have been instrumental in America’s success against ISIS, are all too reminiscent of the US failed policy in Iraq…but obviously the President’s calculus has different priorities.