Trump to Pentagon: Get ready to leave Syria

Which model do you prefer? The Afghanistan model, where we stick around forever seemingly without any concrete goal? Or the Iraq model, where we withdraw and a jihadi cancer grows to fill the power vacuum?

You have to choose, as those seem to be the only models available to us anymore.

Trump chooses a scaled-down version of the Iraq model:

In a meeting with top national security officials Tuesday, Trump stressed that U.S. troops can be involved in current training tasks for local forces to ensure security in areas liberated from the Islamic State, the official said.

But the president said that the U.S. mission would not extend beyond the destruction of the Islamic State, and that he expects other countries, particularly wealthy Arab states in the region, to pick up the task of paying for reconstruction of stabilized areas, including sending their own troops, if necessary…

On Tuesday, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said, “A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.” Upcoming efforts, he said, include the military’s role in “stabilizing [Syria], consolidating gains” and “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction” after the defeat of the Islamic State.

Two days ago CNN reported that the Pentagon was preparing to send *more* troops (a few dozen more, to be clear) to Syria, in part because the Kurdish-led forces that have been working with the U.S. in the southern part of the company are headed to the north to battle Turkey. Per WaPo, “Many military officials were taken aback” last week when Trump said offhandedly that America would be withdrawing soon, and no wonder. Just two months ago Trump signed off on a security strategy for Syria championed by Rex Tillerson that called for, among other things, “the resolution of Syria’s broader conflict through a U.N.-led political process that secures the departure of President Bashar Assad” and, more importantly, “the diminishment of Iranian influence.” If you want to keep Iran and its patron Russia from gobbling up the country, it’s smart to reserve your seat at the table.

And Trump, one would think, does want to do that. His intentions towards Russia have grown more complicated lately but his intentions towards Iran are crystal clear. He’s prepared to trash the nuclear deal and escalate. He seems completely aligned with the Sunni-Israeli position that Iran is the region’s greatest threat and the key players in his cabinet emphatically agree. Remaining in Syria would give the U.S. the ability to “disrupt Iran’s logistical lines, including the land corridors it uses for moving arms and personnel,” and because the U.S. and Kurds dominate the oil-rich eastern part of the country, our presence denies Iran a key resource. Yet here Trump is withdrawing from Syria, the prize Iran’s been fighting for since 2011, effectively handing the country to them and Moscow. Huh.

At least the troops will be happy to come home, right? Maybe not. Defense One editor Kevin Baron wrote a few days ago that based on his conversations with U.S. soldiers, feckless deployments and withdrawals are what they expected from a President Hillary Clinton. Hillary, they thought, was both more likely to send them into battle given her hawkish posture but also more likely to withdraw them too soon, a la Obama and Iraq circa 2011. Trump, the Jacksonian, would be more reluctant to intervene abroad but also more reluctant to retreat under political pressure when there was more work to be done. There’s more work to be done in Syria, notes Baron:

The most frequent criticism of President Obama’s stewardship of Iraq is that he pulled U.S. troops out of the country, and those that fought and died there did so in vain — only to be sent back to cover for his mistake. And they were weary of the Afghanistan war, too. They told me they believed that Clinton, too, would send them off fighting and dying for yet more pointless gains that Washington politicians eventually would give away — like miniature Iraq wars, all over the place…

[T]he president, with one quip, potentially has turned the entire U.S. participation in the ISIS war in Syria into just that: short-term adventurism. Right or wrong, Trump views the military as the hammer for terrorism’s eternal whac-a-mole game. He loves to go after the bad guys as much as he wants to get out quickly and let the locals sort out their own mess. Trump ignores the basic idea behind counterterrorism warfare that U.S. commanders so often preach: that the absence of security and good governance is what breeds terrorism — especially the kind that is focused on attacking targets in the U.S. and Europe.

Maybe Trump’s committed to withdrawing this time and not sending troops back in the years ahead to recover territory that had been won once before. Maybe. But how confident can you be that he’ll stick to that course given his mercurial nature, his terror of being perceived as “weak,” and his susceptibility to pressure from advisors? (He was reluctant to send more troops to Afghanistan or to stick with the Iran deal but he’s done both after strenuous lobbying by aides — so far.) If relations with Russia grow more hostile — and remember, the possibility of an arms race has already been broached — how happy will Trump be at having ceded U.S. leverage in Syria to whichever Sunni country is willing to fill the vacuum left by the U.S., assuming there’s any such country at all?

“[I]f the Americans aren’t in the east, the Iranians will be,” said one Syria analyst to Bloomberg this morning as part of a story about a possible partition of the country between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. If Trump’s eager to get out, which is understandable, why not aggressively push a partition plan of his own? Assad’s not going to be deposed at this point with Tehran and Moscow squarely behind him and Erdogan’s not going to let the Kurds take any more territory on Turkey’s doorstep. Try to bank the gains the Kurds have already made with a partition. Although that only works if the U.S. is prepared to act in some way against Iran or (gulp) NATO ally Turkey if a partition is agreed to and then one of them moves on the new Kurdish-controlled country in the east. What would Trump do to punish them?

He hasn’t set a date yet for withdrawal. No doubt Mattis, Votel, and others will be trying to talk him out of this in the meantime. Here he is yesterday lamenting the futility of America’s adventures in the Middle East. Exit question: The Kurds are about to get screwed by America again, aren’t they?