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National Security & Defense

Defeating ISIS: Separating Fact from Fiction

A U.S. Air Force F-16 refuels in the skies over Syria, December 2017. (Staff Sergeant Paul Labbe/USAF)

Donald Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw American troops from Syria has shocked advisers inside and even allies outside his administration. Lindsey Graham called Trump’s declaration that we have “defeated” ISIS in Syria “fake news.” Graham followed up with a blistering appearance on CNN, where he indicated that Trump’s decision was contrary to sound military advice. Even his most staunch allies, men such as Mike Huckabee, were alarmed:

One of the many problems with skipping the constitutionally necessary congressional debate and authorization before launching a war is that the commander in chief doesn’t have to effectively explain the nature of the enemy, the nature of the conflict, and the scope of the mission. And when that doesn’t happen, even politically engaged and interested Americans can be left in the dark, with their understanding of the conflict limited to the occasional news story or presidential tweet. Barack Obama didn’t initiate this debate when he launched the counter-offensive against ISIS, and Trump has not remedied Obama’s constitutional defect.

Thus, I can understand why Americans could be confused. Hasn’t the war against ISIS been one of the great success stories of Trump’s presidency? After all, allied forces retook Mosul, they retook Raqqa, and people like, well, me have declared the caliphate defeated. So if the caliphate is dead, how is ISIS still alive? How is it possibly dangerous to leave Syria when ISIS has taken such profound and serious losses?

Put simply, ISIS is a terrorist organization that attempted to build a nation-state. The nation-state has been crushed, but the terror organization still lives. And that terror organization is far more numerous and potent than al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to ISIS) when Barack Obama failed to negotiate a new status of forces agreement and pulled out all American troops in 2011. The New York Times‘s invaluable Rukmini Callimachi has the numbers:

So while Trump deserves credit for stepping up the war that Obama began (though both presidents should have sought congressional approval), he is stopping short of short of complete victory. He won a war against a terror state, but he must make sure that state doesn’t reconstitute, and he must complete the campaign against the remaining terrorist force.

In pure military terms — given the strength of the enemy and the vulnerability of our allies — he’s making an arguably worse and more obvious mistake than his predecessor. Moreover, his messaging is self-contradictory and places far too much faith in Syria, Iran, and Russia:

While Assad and his allies clearly and obviously want to attain domination over the whole of Syria (which would mean routing and subjugating the allies who fought and bled alongside American troops), it is far less obvious that Syria, Russia, and Iran will annihilate the remnant of ISIS — so long as they can contain it and direct its aggression against the West. Assad was more than happy to harbor anti-American terrorists during the Iraq War, and he was more than happy to see them kill American troops and to destabilize the allied Iraqi regime. A 2007 DOD report detailed the Assad regime’s complicity in the Iraq insurgency:

Damascus appears unwilling to cooperate fully with the GOI [Government of Iraq] on bilateral security initiatives. Syria continues to provide safe haven, border transit, and limited logistical support to some Iraqi insurgents, especially former Saddam-era Iraqi Baath Party elements. Syria also permits former regime elements to engage in organizational activities, such that Syria has emerged as an important organizational and coordination hub for elements of the former Iraqi regime. Although Syrian security and intelligence services continue to detain and deport Iraq-bound fighters, Syria remains the primary foreign fighter gateway into Iraq. Despite its heightened scrutiny of extremists and suspected insurgents, Damascus appears to want to appease Islamist extremist groups. Damascus also recognizes that Islamist extremists and elements of the former Iraqi regime share Syria’s desire to undermine Coalition efforts in Iraq.

In plain English, if the Assad regime, Iran, or the Russians can wield terrorists as a weapon against the United States, they will. That’s why this Trump tweet is dangerous nonsense:

We cannot outsource our national-security commitments to our avowed enemies. And if Vladimir Putin is upset about American withdrawal, he’s hiding it well. Yesterday, Putin called Trump’s retreat the “right decision.” He knows that Trump has handed him an immense strategic opportunity to maximize Russian leverage and harm American allies.

Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that Trump is ending what was proving to be one of the most successful, low-cost American military missions since 9/11. Unlike our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our losses in Syria have been exceedingly light, we have deployed minimal forces, and we have accomplished impressive victories against formidable enemies without a substantial ground footprint. Our allies bore the bulk of the ground fighting, suffered the vast majority of the casualties, and now they stand to lose everything if we leave.

When Trump says ISIS is defeated in Syria, he’s not telling the truth. When he declares that Russia and Iran will pick up the torch and finish the fight, he’s delegating American defense obligations to American enemies. His decision is reckless and dangerous and in some ways represents a greater gamble than Obama’s ultimately disastrous withdrawal from Iraq. Let’s hope he changes his mind again, secures the victory against the caliphate, and finishes the necessary fight against ISIS. How many times must we make the same mistake? Withdrawal before victory is all too often the prelude to suffering and defeat.


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