Watching conservative apologists for President Trump, the very same people who lambasted President Barack Obama for inactivity, try to rationalize his immediate withdrawal of troops from Syria should illuminate the degree to which the right has become unmoored to principle.
The United States will move quickly to withdraw all forces from Syria, the White House abruptly announced Wednesday, as President Trump defied warnings from his top advisers and upended plans for a continued mission against the Islamic State.
The move plunged U.S. allies into uncertainty and created the potential for greater regional instability even as it provided Russia and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a chance to cement greater control of the country.
“Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now, we won and that’s the way we want it,” Trump said in a video message on Twitter.
Trump made his move in opposition to all his military advisers and without so much as a heads-up to Congress.
The move did not go over well with GOP senators, including Bob Corker of Tennessee, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina (who said this was an “Obama-like mistake”). Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking members on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively, put out a blistering statement. “The troubling reports that President Trump ordered the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops and State Department personnel out of Syria with no plan or funds to stabilize the area are yet another example of this administration’s dangerous lack of strategy,” they wrote. " With so many vital U.S. national security interests at stake in the Middle East, a leadership vacuum in Syria risks outcomes that serve only Russia’s and Iran’s interests, not our own.” They continued, “As with the Administration’s earlier decision to end Syria stabilization assistance, this abrupt move appears to have been taken with little thought of the consequences to strategic U.S. interests, including the effects on our partner forces in the unfinished fight against ISIS. Furthermore, we are concerned by the consequences of choosing to outsource our strategic interests in Syria to Russia and Iran, which inevitably threatens the security of our partners in Israel, Iraq, and Jordan.”
Trump’s assertion about the defeat of the Islamic State is false — according to his own administration. (“There are about 15,000 Islamic State militants in Syria, according to best estimates. In recent months, the group has been regaining a foothold in the country. Violent attacks have increased.") If we see a revival of the Islamic State in Syria, just as Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 gave al-Qaeda its second wind, Trump will be to blame.
Tehran and Moscow will celebrate. (“Russia has positioned itself as one of Assad’s major allies. Its military has been active in Syria since 2015. Without the U.S. troop presence, Moscow will be able to expand its role in Syria and its sphere of influence across the Middle East.”) As will Bashar al-Assad, who proved that genocide pays in the end. The move confirms we have no coherent policy for containing Iran. Israel may finally discover that slavish praise of Trump might get an embassy to move but won’t help keep Iran at bay.
The Kurds are betrayed, left to what surely will be an onslaught from the Turks. It is a warning to other would-be allies in the war against Islamist militant terror: Don’t trust the Americans.
Eric S. Edelman, former ambassador to Turkey, tells me, “This is perhaps the single worst decision made in the Trump Presidency (which is saying something). In one swoop he has undermined his Administration’s policies on ISIS, Syria and Iran, undercut and embarrassed his entire national security team, disconcerted (once again) America’s allies, and set the stage for a series of disastrous sequels.” He explains: “This decision will have consequences for years and haunt the United States when Islamist extremist terrorism rises from the ashes. It appears that this decision was made on his gut instinct that he knows better than his advisers and that he can negotiate a great deal with his fellow authoritarian [Turkish President Recep] Tayyip Erdogan.” Edelman concludes, “In fact, all he is doing is guaranteeing that Russia and Iran are the arbiters of the region’s future and that Turkey and others will be looking to Moscow and Tehran to take their cues, not Washington.”
Trump has managed to devise a foreign policy that is morally vacuous and inept. We have simultaneously abandoned allies and victims of repression while bolstering enemies of the United States. Perhaps our enemies are not Trump’s, however. (Moscow had a banner day on Wednesday — the United States announced retreat from the Middle East and sanctions relief for two Russia firms, one of which is the world’s second-largest aluminum producer.) Really, if you had to order up a Middle East move that would heighten Russia’s stature and influence, it would be hard to beat Trump’s Syria move.