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Trump’s Decision to Leave a Token Force in Syria Is More Significant Than You Think

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with China’s Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 22, 2019. (Carlos Barria/REUTERS)

It looks like Donald Trump has changed his mind again. The White House announced yesterday that the U.S. would leave “a small peacekeeping group” of roughly 200 soldiers in Syria even after the bulk of American forces withdraw. They’ll be roughly evenly split between a base in northeast Syria and a base in southeast Syria.

The number isn’t large (let’s call them the “Trump 200”), but their significance far exceeds their numbers. First, the presence of American soldiers will act as a profound deterrent to American enemies and to those who wish to destroy American allies. While a small American force may not have significant combat power on its own, it can call on immense firepower if in distress, and the very act of attacking American troops on the ground  would trigger a much larger confrontation. Even this small presence should grant the American people at least a degree of hope that we do not intend to either squander hard-won battlefield gains or abandon allies who paid for those gains in blood.

Second, even small American deployments facilitate continued involvement by our powerful European allies. As Reuters’ Steve Holland and Idrees Ali explained:

Leaving even a small group of U.S. troops in Syria could pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.” Previously, “European allies have balked at providing troops unless they received a firm commitment that Washington was still committed to the region.

If these allies come through, then the total western force could reach as many as 1,000 or 1,500 troops — creating an even more effective deterrent shield and leaving ISIS with less ability to recreate safe havens. Critically, it will help prevent Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime from gaining more power at the expense of American credibility and influence.

Advocates of American withdrawal sometimes fail to understand how few troops it often takes to secure American gains — or at least to prevent catastrophic losses. When Obama decided to pull out all American troops in Iraq, for example, he was deciding against leaving a relatively small force behind (small certainly compared to the large deployments at the height of the Iraq War), but it was a force more than strong enough to stop the ISIS blitzkrieg in 2014.

If Trump’s 200 can reassure American allies, incentivize allied deployments, and help keep a military boot on ISIS’s neck, then it will be one of the more cost-effective and wise decisions of his presidency. Trump’s mercurial nature is often a liability. When he changes his mind to reverse a mistake, it’s an asset. Let’s hope he doesn’t change his mind again.

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