Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 20, 2018
President Trump’s declaration of victory over the Islamic State, prompting an abrupt order for withdrawal of all 2,000 or more U.S. troops in Syria, came over the objection of his generals.
It also instantly assured continuation of despotic Syrian leader Bashad al-Assad, ceded Syrian lands to Russia’s sphere of influence, empowered more bad behavior in the region by Iran, and snubs Syrian rebels and Kurdish allies who face rising threat from the Turkish government.
He also seems to have missed the move by ISIS from its territory to a worldwide sponsor of localized terrorism. His tweet said the United States had “defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the United States had defeated the Islamic State’s “territorial caliphate.”
Hmm. Haven’t we run into problems when the president declares “Mission Accomplished” before it actually has eliminate the threat?
More than anything else, leaving Syria following a victory over ISIS was a central tenet of the Donald Trump presidential campaign. There were, for example, no details on his plans for the military mission, nor a larger strategy, in Syria.
As The Washington Post noted, the decision signals a halt to an extended American ground campaign against the Islamic State and upends plans across the U.S. government — articulated by senior officials as recently as this week — for an ongoing mission to stabilize areas once controlled by the militants. The New York Times said In a series of meetings and conference calls over the past several days, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior national security officials have tried to dissuade Trump from the 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.
In September, Mattis suggested that a precipitous withdrawal could enable militants to make a comeback, as they did in Iraq before the Islamic State’s rise in 2014. “Getting rid of the caliphate doesn’t mean you then blindly say, ‘Okay, we got rid of it,’ march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back.”
The immediate withdrawal flies in the face of the Syria policy that has been outlined repeatedly by senior U.S. officials over the past several months. As recently as last week, Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the global anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters that “it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.”
In Russia, officials expressed cautious satisfaction with Trump’s decision because Russia has long described the U.S. mission in Syria as illegal because it wasn’t approved by the Assad government.
And in Congress, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-SC, said the Islamic State was not yet defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and said “withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake.” The former president has been blamed for pulling troops out of Iraq in 2011 and, critics say, allowing the Islamic State to strengthen.
It remains unclear why the president took this decision right now. One theory suggested that Turkey has been pressuring the president because it wants to launch military efforts against the Kurds, and the withdrawal would keep harm from coming to U.S. troops. Another is that with apparent failure of Trump’s promised Wall in Congress, he needed another campaign promise to announce checked off. The third, of course, is the idea of a presidential move that would distract attention away from the continuing and rising tensions arising of investigations in a variety of legal challenges to Trump.
Once again, even good news from this White House has a bad aftertaste.