Against the advice of his entire national security team, President Donald Trump ordered the full withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. ground troops from Syria.
The decision, as usual, was announced via Twitter. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted Dec. 19. But that is a judgment few in his administration actually share.
Only days earlier, Trump’s top military adviser, Gen. Joseph Dunford, declared: “We still have a long way to go.” And Brett McGurk, the president’s special envoy to the global coalition against the Islamic State, said, “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished,” and that withdrawing now would be “reckless.”
The president apparently had other ideas.
He has long wanted to withdraw American troops from Syria (and, indeed, many other places). In March, he first announced that troops would be coming out “very soon,” and he was only reluctantly persuaded to keep them there for a longer period. Now, the president’s patience appears to have been worn out. The troops are coming home.
What seems to have sealed the deal for Trump was a phone call Friday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan reportedly warned Trump that he would soon move against the Syrian Kurdish forces, which the U.S. had long backed, because they were aligned with Kurdish terrorist groups in Turkey and represented an unacceptable threat. Removing U.S. troops that were deployed with the Syrian Kurds would avoid the possibility of a confrontation between forces of the two NATO allies. To sweeten the deal, Erdogan also agreed to purchase Patriot air defense missiles, a deal worth $3.5 billion to U.S. firms.
For Trump, therefore, the decision to remove the American troops represented a double win: The troops he had long wanted to withdraw were coming home, and Turkey would spend billions buying American military equipment.
For almost everyone else, however, Trump’s decision represents a historic blunder.
“An Obama-like mistake,” Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., bitingly called the move. “A colossal mistake,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., intoned. Countless experts took to the airwaves and Twitter to denounce the decision as a win for Russia and Iran, a huge loss for America’s allies in the Middle East and a vindication for Bashar Assad, Syria’s strongman, whose reign of terror during the past seven years has caused many hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.
The critics, no doubt, have a point.
Trump’s decision completely undermines his administration’s strategy in Syria and for the region. In September, national security adviser John Bolton promised “we’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” A month later, secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced a “reassessment of America’s mission in Syria,” which was not just to defeat the Islamic State but also to secure “a peaceful and political resolution to the Syrian conflict and the removal of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from Syria.”
In announcing the decision to remove U.S. forces, the White House and Pentagon made clear that “the campaign against (the Islamic State) is not over,” but both were silent on the larger objectives of the U.S. mission in Syria, including training regional forces to help secure the peace and countering Iranian influence.
That said, there are legitimate questions about the actual viability of the administration’s Syria strategy. By itself, keeping 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria for the long term is no guarantee of future success regarding any of its stated goals. The Islamic State has morphed into a terrorist threat that extends to many parts of the globe, and the singular focus on Syria and Iraq might have contributed to that. Our ability to train and equip regional forces to sustain and stabilize post-conflict regions has been found wanting, as the decade-old effort in Afghanistan shows. And while Iran’s influence in Syria is no doubt strong, it’s not clear how keeping a small number of U.S. troops would actually undermine that influence.
The problem with Trump’s decision is that it should have been the product of a reasoned process of evaluation, including an assessment of the likelihood of success in meeting stated goals. It should have followed detailed consultation with allies and others with direct interest in the region and not sprung on them with little, if any, notice.
As usual, however, the decision reflected the president’s instincts rather than the product of reasoned analysis.
The decision to withdraw American forces from Syria now offers an opportunity for the administration to undertake just such analysis and consider a course of action that has greater likelihood of success than the previous course it was embarked upon.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.