President Trump Tweets Retreat from Syria

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.

ANERA Serves the needs of refugees and host communities in Lebanon

It is winter, and refugees in the Middle East face challenges ranging from access to heat, water, food, and shelter, to securing health and social services that enable them to survive. At this time of year, dozens of appeals for help come into my mail and email boxes from NGOs and others committed to sustaining some measure of dignity for the refugees and their host communities through providing essential services to support them and give their lives a sense of renewal and relief.

I have been fortunate to know several of these organizations first-hand through their work in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, and efforts elsewhere in Morocco, Yemen, and Tunisia. I am both heart-broken and heartened by their stories and their programs, and want to highlight the efforts of one such organization.

Anera (American Near East Refugee Aid) marked its 50th anniversary this year. It was started in 1968 to bring relief to displaced and impoverished Palestinians after the 1967 war. It has programs in Gaza and the West Bank of Palestine, and once worked in Jordan where it hopes to return in the future. In Lebanon, it is working to support Palestinian and Syrian refugees and their host communities through projects that address immediate and longer-term needs such as health services, economic development, jobs and skills training, community infrastructure, and education.

To maximize its impact, Anera works with other NGOs to address emergency relief and “maintainable water, health, education, and economic development projects.” In order to combat the real threat of a “lost generation” of Syrian children, Anera has launched non-formal education courses in English, math, and Arabic, and also teams with others to offer health services, vocational training, and hygiene and mental health services. It provides similar efforts to Lebanese host communities to sustain their capacity to withstand challenges to their stability.

Anera’s website features profiles of various Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese youth who have benefited from its programs including young women and men who have trained to become electricians to serve their communities. That particular program was started by UNICEF and funded by the Netherlands, Germany, and UK Aid. In Lebanon, this partnership supports “a nation-wide vocational training program, as a means to give marginalized Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian youth opportunities at employment. The vocational courses which Anera’s on-ground partners and trainers provide are all-inclusive and ensure that the outreach includes vulnerable youth of all genders, religions, and social backgrounds.”

According to Anera, “Over 4,000 youths have enrolled in Anera’s job skills courses in Lebanon, and about half have been provided with internships and apprenticeships. A variety of vocational courses are being offered as part of the project, which aims to develop the skills of out-of-school youth and allow them to secure livelihoods. By September 2017, a total of 4,144 youth took part in these courses.”

The latest available data shows that in 2018, “Anera spent 94% of its revenue (some $68.9 million) on direct programming, providing urgent relief and life-improving development to refugee communities and other vulnerable populations across Palestine and Lebanon.”

Anera Lebanon’s country director, Mrs. Samar Al-Yassir, can be found at locations throughout the country ensuring that its programs reach young people regardless of nationality and background, essential to maintaining credibility and impact in multi-confessional Lebanon. One program, “Quick Impact Skills Development for Adolescents and Youth Affected by the Syrian Crisis,” enables Lebanese and non-Lebanese to acquire technical, vocational, and skills-building training that is life-changing – or as Anera calls it, “Where Hope Finds a Way.” Local implementing partners include the Rene Moawad Foundation, Leb Relief, Mouvement Social, and the AVSI Foundation.

Another long-term program in Lebanon is a solid waste management initiative in the villages of Majdal Anjar, Mansourah, and Temnine Faouqa, focusing on households, informal settlements, facilities, farms, and slaughterhouses. “The It Starts with You initiative is part of Anera’s Community Based Solid Waste Management project, which aims to improve sanitation and hygiene in the villages. The program is upgrading the solid waste management systems used by each municipality.”

After his recent trip to the region, Sean Campbell, Anera’s president, noted that “In response to the political situation and fluid status of refugees, Anera continues programming, mostly with UN support, working to provide skills to Syrian refugees that will be valuable and valued whether they stay in Lebanon, go home or move to a third country. We are also working increasingly with vulnerable Lebanese host communities. More challenging is our work with Palestinians, as donor cuts to UN agencies mean that those agencies are cutting their funding to implementation partners, including Anera.”

As he traveled to various projects, his stories of renewal, hope, and determination characterize Anera’s programs. Its work on “youth literacy and math and 14 vocational education courses in nine subject areas,” for example, has clearly changed the lives of the participants. His sense of commitment, shared by Anera’s staff, volunteers, and partners, marks its reputation as a credible, effective, and worthy partner for the people of the region who are in need of concrete opportunities for a better life.

For more on Anera, follow this link.

Some Facts on Anera in Lebanon

  • Works in 12 Palestinian Refugee Camps, 2000 informal Syrian tented settlements, as well as Lebanese host communities

  • In 2018, 1,634 young people went to camp and received free dental care

  • 6,048 out-of-school youth gained access to vocational training programs

  • Created 10,650 safe play areas for children

  • Pilot communities in a waste management program now recycling 80% of their waste

ATFL Tribute to President Bush

The American Task Force for Lebanon mourns the loss of President George H.W. Bush and remembers him for his vision and strength in foreign policy and leadership in global affairs. ATFL honors his memory. In a letter to ATFL written in 1991, the President wrote: “I believe that our country has a special responsibility to lead in the world — to encourage and guide, by word, deed, and example — all those struggling to escape tyranny and oppression. Meeting that duty has sometimes required courage and sacrifice[…] Nevertheless, America is willing to do the hard work of freedom.” We offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of President George H.W. Bush.