The American military intervention in Syria represents one of the most successful and cost-effective military operations of the post-9/11 era. At a minimal cost in American lives — through maximum cooperation with courageous Kurdish and Arab allies — the ISIS caliphate has been reduced to rubble, Russian and Iranian ambitions in Syria have been checked, and the United States has gained valuable territorial leverage in the negotiation for a permanent peace settlement in the Syrian civil war.
But there is work left to be done. ISIS is down but not out, our Syrian allies remain vulnerable, and Russia and Iran retain their own ambitions for regional domination. That’s why Trump’s advisers have repeatedly talked him out of making a serious error by abandoning Syria before the mission is complete. As recently as September he seemed to have reached a definitive decision. American forces would stay, and he’d begin a renewed “diplomatic push” for a sustainable peace.
Well, Trump has reversed course, and he’s about to make that serious mistake. Here’s the New York Times:
President Trump has ordered a rapid withdrawal of all 2,000 United States ground troops from Syria within 30 days, declaring the four-year American-led war against the Islamic State as largely won, officials said Wednesday.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president said in a Twitter post on Wednesday morning. He offered no details on his plans for the military mission, nor a larger strategy, in Syria.
Rukmini Callimachi — the reporter who has likely done more than any other journalist to educate the public about ISIS — had an effective, fact-based retort to Trump’s declaration of victory:
Three separate reports including by the Pentagon Inspector General, by the United Nations and by @CSIS have estimated that ISIS still has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters just in Iraq and Syria, but sure, let’s call the group “defeated.” #DejaVu https://t.co/6hDb4ilUIR
— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) December 19, 2018
The ISIS caliphate, the physical nation-state they tried to build in 2014–15, is largely in ruins. ISIS the terrorist organization still exists, and it still has thousands of fighters. It is still a threat, and an American retreat gives it the potential to re-create safe havens in Syrian territory.
Moreover, Trump’s retreat empowers both Iran and Russia — granting a great strategic gift to two of America’s chief geopolitical foes. When Vladimir Putin intervened in Syria’s civil war to save the Assad regime, Barack Obama famously warned that Russia was getting sucked into a “quagmire.” In fact, Russia’s intervention has so far been an unmitigated success. He helped tip the balance of power in the civil war, secured continued access to Russia’s naval base in Tartus, and restored Russian influence in the region to a level not seen since the Cold War.
As for Iran, it has propped up its Syrian ally, and American withdrawal will only strengthen its hand as it deploys its assets in close proximity to Israel, raising the possibility of broader conflict with America’s closest Middle Eastern ally.
Trump’s decision also seriously weakens the very same Kurdish allies who fought and bled by our side in the campaign against the caliphate. They’ll now be vulnerable to Assad’s regime in the south and Turkish forces in the north. Without strong security guarantees, it is not too much to say that we are on the verge of abandoning the Kurds in Syria.
Finally, it’s important to note that Trump is reportedly disregarding the counsel of his own national-security team. They have allegedly talked him out of previous retreats, articulating many of the reasons outlined above, but today’s announcement is proof that, for all the supposed consolation that an inexperienced president has surrounded himself with capable national-security advisers, his decision is the one that matters.
America’s military presence in Syria did suffer from one quite serious flaw: It had not been approved by Congress. The invasion and occupation of the territory of a hostile foreign state is an act of war, and constitutionally only Congress is empowered to declare war. The proper course of action for the president would have been to stay the course and seek congressional approval. Instead, he is now remedying the constitutional defect in the worst possible way — by abandoning the field without even granting Congress the opportunity to authorize a sound strategy.
One would think that a GOP administration would have learned the lessons of Obama’s reckless withdrawal from Iraq. American retreats often create power vacuums that are often filled by American enemies. Now, after all the blood spilled and tears shed since the rise of ISIS, Donald Trump is set to make his own version of Obama’s deadly mistake.