With ISIS on the ropes, is it time for a knockout blow — or to blow the Syrian pop stand? According to the Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump has chosen the latter. Under pressure from Turkey, the US has notified its partners in the region that it will commence a full withdrawal from Syria:
In an abrupt reversal, the U.S. military is preparing to withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, people familiar with the matter said Wednesday, a move that throws the American strategy in the Middle East into turmoil.
U.S. officials began informing partners in northeastern Syria of their plans to begin immediately pulling American forces out of the region where they have been trying to wrap up the campaign against Islamic State, the people said.
“The Pentagon has an order to get to move troops out of Syria as quickly as possible, “ a U.S. official said.
The move follows a call last week between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened to launch an assault on America’s Kurdish partners in Syria.
A US pullout makes that threat more likely than less likely, one would imagine. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened Kurdish forces in northern Syria, calling them terrorists and demanding that the US withdraw support for them. The YPG in particular, which was instrumental in pushing ISIS out of Raqqa, has come under threat. Without American forces on the ground, the path would be open for Erdogan to attack their positions in force, which might undermine any further effort to demolish the vestiges of ISIS.
Nevertheless, Trump himself declared victory and tacitly confirmed the report:
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
CNN gives an accounting of the withdrawal’s scope, and notes that the decision does not include Iraq:
Even though the US will continue to maintain troops in Iraq with the capability of launching strikes into Syria, a US withdrawal of ground forces would fulfill a major goal of Syria, Iran and Russia and risks diminishing US influence in the region.
The US has about 2,000 troops on the ground in the country, where they are primarily training local forces to combat ISIS. The US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have had some recent success against the terror group and are on the cusp of capturing the last major town held by ISIS east of the Euphrates.
Estimates vary as to how many ISIS fighters are left in Syria. In the town of Hajin, the terror group’s last redoubt, the coalition estimated some 2,000 ISIS fighters were present. But a Defense Department inspector general report put the number of ISIS members in Syria and Iraq as high as 30,000.
The US has forces in Iraq ready to launch attacks in Syria if necessary. In the last few weeks, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS has carried out hundreds of air and artillery strikes targeting ISIS in Syria. Some of those strikes were launched from neighboring Iraq, where the US has over 5,000 troops. Hundreds of US troops have also been training local forces at At Tanf in southern Syria, where Russia-backed pro-regime forces are seeking to oust the US presence.
There is undeniable wisdom in the goal of preventing a clash of armies in Syria. However, there isn’t too much military wisdom in leaving a vacuum in one’s wake that could get filled by the enemy, nor in choosing far ground over near ground in a territorial fight. If Turkey allows the YPG and other Kurdish forces room to operate against ISIS in Syria, then perhaps the trade-off is worth it, but will they? And will the YPG continue this fight if it feels betrayed by an American pullout?
ISIS is badly damaged but far from dead, as we discovered to our dismay in late 2013 and early 2014. The US pulled out of Iraq in 2011 with the assumption that local forces could deal with what was then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which metastasized into ISIS in the vacuum we created with that withdrawal. We’ll still be nearby this time, but any missions we launch from Iraq will suffer from a lack of intel and comprehension of the shifting situations on the ground in Syria. Plus, those operations would still run the risk of clashing with Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
Our presence in Syria was not going to be permanent, but a premature withdrawal — if that’s what this is — sends a very bad signal in the region. Combined with our enthusiasm for getting out of Afghanistan, we might not achieve more peace but instead another major recruitment victory for radical Islamists around the globe. It didn’t work in Iraq in 2011, and it didn’t work in Somalia in 1993.
Update: Nothing’s moving yet, according to the Kurds:
Kurdish official in Syria tells @NBCNews nothing has been finalized, regarding reports of US troops leaving. Says no movement of US troops at the moment.
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) December 19, 2018
It might take a while for an orderly withdrawal to get started, too.
Update: Strong pushback coming from the newly MAGA Lindsey Graham, who calls this idea “a huge Obama-like mistake”:
With all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there — certainly not Afghanistan.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 19, 2018
A decision to withdraw will also be viewed as a boost to ISIS desire to come back.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 19, 2018
In all likelihood, yes. That’s what happened in 2011, and with al-Qaeda in 1993, too.
Update, 12/21/2018: I mistakenly used “YDF” several times in this, when I meant “YPG.” I confused it with the Syrian Defense Force abbreviation (SDF). I have corrected it above.