“It’s been many, many years,” he said Oct. 7, the day after the withdrawal was announced. “It’s been decades, in many cases. We want to bring our troops back home.”
On Wednesday he said, “I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that’s what I’m doing.”
“I’m happy because there’s no fighting,” he added Thursday. “We can bring certainly most of our people back home for the first time in many years."
Except that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced this weekend that the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops who were being removed from Syria would not come home but instead would go to western Iraq, where they would continue to fight the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS. Esper added Monday that some troops may also remain in Syria to protect oil fields from an ISIS takeover.
In other words, according to publicly announced troop decisions, there may soon be more troops in the Middle East than before Trump’s announced withdrawal from northern Syria two weeks ago. And depending on what happens between Iran and the Saudis, the United States could technically be involved in more conflicts of indeterminate length than before.
Not that this will stop Trump from continuing to claim he’s bringing the troops home.
“We won’t be fighting, and we’ll bring our soldiers back home,” he said Monday, even after he confirmed Esper’s latest announcement about keeping some troops in Syria. “They were supposed to be there for 30 days, and they’ve been there now for 10 years.”
Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was pressed on this Sunday, and he suggested that Iraq was perhaps just a stopover for troops on the way to full withdrawal.
“Well, they will [come home] eventually,” Mulvaney said. “The quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them into Iraq.”
Except that’s not what Esper was talking about. While talking with reporters over the weekend, he spoke specifically about how the troops would be rolled into the “counter-ISIS mission” in Iraq:
ESPER: The current game plan is for those forces to reposition into western Iraq to ...
Q: All of them?
ESPER: Yeah, the ones coming out, right? That original 1,000. And then to -- two missions, one is to help defend Iraq, and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps. And, again, that’s the current game plan. Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal. But that’s the game plan right now.
He even suggested that some of the Special Operations forces in Iraq could conduct missions into Syria if need be:
Q: Do you then foresee a situation where special forces could be going into Syria from western Iraq for pinprick or specific strikes?
ESPER: I think those are all the options and ideas we have to weigh out over time. Those are all things we need to discuss with our allies, that I intend to discuss, that certainly will be discussed at the military level, is what does the next phase of counter-ISIS campaign look like. And I know that’s a top concern of mine, second only to protection of our forces coming out of Syria.
Trump’s statements about the Syria withdrawal are now a whirlwind of dissonance.
On the one hand, he’s saying we don’t need Middle Eastern oil, that ISIS is largely defeated and that there’s nothing left for the United States to do in Syria. On the other, we now might keep troops to protect Syria’s oil fields there and use others to conduct missions into Syria from Iraq.
On the one hand, he’s talking about bringing troops home and how he’s tired of seeing wounded warriors and coffins at Dover Air Force Base. On the other, he’s pulling troops out of a conflict in which only a handful of Americans have been killed and putting them into Iraq, where thousands have died, and he’s putting 3,000 more troops in the middle of a powder keg in Saudi Arabia.
However you feel about the ultimate wisdom of the withdrawals, the idea was that they were withdrawals. For now, they look more like repositioning for other conflicts — like re-prioritization.
“I’m trying to get out of wars,” Trump said Monday while confirming that a small number of troops would remain in Syria. “We may have to get in wars, too.”
What he didn’t say is that those two things appear to be happening concurrently.