After weeks of to-ing and fro-ing about timetables, Donald Trump is keeping his promise—sort of, with adjustments. On Friday, the military announced that it was beginning the process of withdrawing from Syria. This a few weeks after the president shocked Washington in December by declaring that he intended to get out, starting “now,” having vowed to do so on the campaign trail more than two years ago.
The fallout from that announcement was significant and bipartisan, and helped to spark the resignation of Trump’s widely respected defense secretary, James Mattis. And even as the Defense Department under Mattis’s successor sets about following the order to pull out, it leaves behind many of the same problems Trump’s advisers say they’re trying to fix.
Trump’s announcement in December was roundly condemned. U.S. allies in the counter-ISIS coalition, including France and the United Kingdom, were left scrambling to make their own plans. Even critics of the U.S. ground deployment in Syria, which as of now involves around 2,000 troops largely tasked with fighting the Islamic State and training local forces, characterized Trump’s plans as the right policy pursued in the wrong way. Withdrawing too fast would create a vacuum that U.S. foes, including Russia and Iran, would fill. It would fail to consolidate the U.S.-led coalition’s victory over ISIS, leaving the group space to rebuild and rearm. And it would leave some of the best U.S. allies in that battle—the Syrian Kurds, who did the bulk of the ground fighting—vulnerable to a Turkish government just over the border that sees them as terrorists and is bent on crushing their bid for autonomy.