Short of sending these guys to Afghanistan, there’s nothing Trump and the Pentagon could have done to better undermine his message about “ending endless wars” than to send them to Iraq.
And why Iraq? Partly it’s because those troops, who had been tasked with fighting ISIS in Syria, might be needed to … fight ISIS in Syria.
That is, the event that triggered U.S. withdrawal from the country — Turkey’s onslaught against the Kurds — may destabilize northern Syria to the point where U.S. troops are forced to re-enter sooner rather than later. The difference being that ISIS will have had time amid the chaos of Turkey’s incursion to gather strength before American soldiers have to deal with them again.
Esper said the troops going into Iraq will have two missions.
“One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” he said. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”…
Esper said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming week to discuss the way ahead for the counter-IS mission.
Asked if U.S. special operations forces will conduct unilateral military operations into Syria to go after IS, Esper said that is an option that will be discussed with allies over time.
The “endless war” isn’t ending. We’re just going to fight it from a less advantageous position, with our key ally either evacuated or decimated in the zone of likely future combat.
Trump tweeted about this earlier and appears to have quoted Esper on something he never said:
I’m not sure who Trump is referring to, but I’m travelling with Defense Secretary Esper and cant recall the quote Trump is using. While speaking with us Enroute to Afghanistan, Esper also made no mention of new areas being resettled with Kurds or oil. pic.twitter.com/VAN9IQ13At
— Idrees Ali (@idreesali114) October 20, 2019
That tweet was deleted due to his misspelling of Esper’s name, which was almost certainly an autocorrect snafu on his phone. The revised tweet is almost as strange, though:
“The ceasefire is holding up very nicely. There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with Kurds. U.S. soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zone. We have secured the Oil.” Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense. Ending endless wars!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2019
From what I can tell, Esper never said most of that. He did tell reporters that the ceasefire “generally seems to be holding,” according to the AP, but the rest is a Trumpian hash. He’s not “ending endless wars,” as I just noted. If anything, he’s extended the one in Syria and our potential involvement in it by giving ISIS a chance to break out. No one seems to know what he’s talking about when he mentions securing “the oil” either. He made that point a few days ago as well (“We’ve taken control of the oil in the Middle East”) and the media’s been scratching its head over it ever since. Presumably he means that troops haven’t withdrawn from Syrian oil fields that were already occupied by American and Kurdish forces.
As for the Kurds being “resettled,” that’s the politest possible way to describe Erdogan’s plan to have them ethnically cleansed from the area so that he can start dumping Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey back across the border.
Republican voters are still with the president on this matter, by and large, although not by the usual 85-90 percent margins one tends to see from GOP voters on Trump initiatives. Support on the right for withdrawal from Syria in polling over the past week has ranged from low-majority numbers (mid-50s) to mere pluralities in favor, and one poll found 44 percent of Republicans agreeing with the statement that retreating from northern Syria while the Kurds are under fire from Turkey is damaging America’s reputation as a trusted ally.
Trump’s best asset in repelling political attacks is the universally shared perception that the U.S. has never had good options in Syria and thus criticism of any particular decision to deploy or to retreat can seem opportunistic. For instance, here’s staunch libertarian Justin Amash insisting that U.S. troops never should have been in Syria (because there was never an AUMF passed by Congress) and certainly should have been withdrawn before now — and yet he criticizes Trump for not trying to reach a deal with Erdogan before the Turks invaded, the catalyst for Trump’s withdrawal from the area. That’s not strictly contradictory, I suppose, but “Withdraw! Wait, no, not yet!” is a hard argument to make, and comes off as a longtime antagonist dinging Trump just to ding him. Then again, the libertarian alternative to Amash is Rand Paul, who went so far as to call in 2015 for giving the Kurds their own independent state if they agreed to lead the fight against ISIS and, now that they have, has spent the last 10 days cheerleading America’s betrayal of them seemingly without a care. At least Amash is worried about what comes next with ISIS.
"It's pretty clear [President Trump's] not bringing home the troops. He's just moving them to other parts of the Middle East." pic.twitter.com/tAsr1MHkC6
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) October 20, 2019