With a few keystrokes this past Wednesday, President Trump laid the groundwork for an abrupt withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, effectively abandoning anti-Islamic State allies on the ground and potentially sealing the fate of more than 50,000 Syrian refugees dependent on the United States for protection. Trump’s announcement, which took even his most senior advisers by surprise, will reduce American influence at a critical stage in the Syria conflict and render unattainable his administration’s stated goals: an “enduring” defeat of ISIS, a change in the behavior of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and a reduced Iranian presence in Syria.
A president who prides himself on doing the opposite of whatever President Barack Obama did, Trump has just repeated his predecessor’s mistakes in the region — and the consequences this time around will be worse.
In 2009, Obama came into office with a deep aversion to continued military involvement in the Middle East. In 2011, after failing to secure legal immunity for about 5,000 U.S. troops in an update to the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, Obama ended the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Critics of Obama’s decision called the withdrawal premature and accused the president of laying the groundwork for the eventual rise of what would emerge as the Islamic State. Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq at the time and now the U.S. special envoy for Syria, has argued that none of those consequences could be foreshadowed at the time. Now, 10 years later and with the benefit of hindsight, Trump is ignoring the lessons of Obama’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq and is following through on his own “America First” campaign promise with the Syria decision, tweeting, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”
But Trump’s own advisers and partners on the ground agree that Islamic State, or ISIS, is far from defeated. The militant group still has thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Syria, and according to the Pentagon, it remains well equipped to stage a resurgence in the next several months if given an opportunity. The conditions in Iraq also show the vulnerabilities that still exist in the area. Defense secretary Jim Mattis has resigned over the Syria decision, the latest in a long list of disagreements he has had with Trump. Asked earlier this month about the U.S. presence in Syria, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said he has “gained some humility over the last few years about projecting timelines.” Dunford explained that U.S. troops are only about 20 percent of the way through training and equipping the 35,000 to 40,000 partner troops required to maintain stability in Syria, and that a U.S. presence was necessary to support diplomatic efforts there. Both missions will now be left incomplete, with the resulting power vacuum all but guaranteed to embolden our adversaries.
In 2013, the Obama administration dispatched the then-secretary of state, John F. Kerry, to gather support for a U.S.-led response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, only to reverse course at the 11th hour with no prior warning to or consultation with partners. Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, later described the about-face as having damaged U.S. credibility. I worked in the administration at the time; even then, many of us predicted the damage the reversal would do both to our policy in Syria and our relationships with other players. This week, America’s partners expressed similar dismay at another abrupt decision, once again taken with little or no prior consultation.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explained that with the Islamic State now territorially defeated, “we have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.” But she fails to recognize that the next phase of the campaign will have to include tackling issues that led to the very grievances the Islamic State used in its recruitment strategy — issues that require full and sustained cooperation from our allies and partners. Given the lack of consideration or show of respect to those actors, it is difficult to envision a willingness on their part to trust in or partner with the United States in the future.
Trump is also repeating Obama-era mistakes in handling Russia in the Middle East. By the time the Arab Spring reached Syria, the Russians had held a grudge against the Obama administration for the U.S. role in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. So when the peaceful protests in Syria began and were met with a heavy-handed response from the Assad regime, the Russians were prepared to prevent a similar occurrence. Russia’s support for Assad, both to make a point about their views on regime change as well as to protect their naval base in Tartus, and the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved in another Middle East conflict, resulted in an outsize Russian influence in the conflict and a subsequently emboldened Russian foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States in general.
Trump’s continued deference to Russia in the region, most recently signaled by the impending withdrawal from Syria and the abdication of any U.S. role in negotiations over the fate of post-conflict Syria, comes at a time when Russia has felt sufficiently emboldened to attack America’s democracy and is one of three guarantors of Syria’s future, along with Turkey and Iran. A kingmaker Russia alongside a disinterested America now presents regional actors with a clear-cut choice about where to throw their lot. Hint: It’s not with the United States.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that former defense secretary Leon Panetta had been in office in 2013. He had already left that position by then; Chuck Hagel was defense secretary at the time.