Rarely has the repositioning of 2,200 American troops out of a far-flung military theater caused such a ruckus.
Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. ground forces from Syria left his hawkish allies in the Republican Party, along with much of the American foreign-policy establishment, positively aghast. It even prompted Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, to resign on Thursday.
“It has rattled the world,” declared a glum Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the president’s foe turned bosom buddy, who joined two senior Democrats on Thursday to plead with the president to change his mind. “If it isn’t reversed,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, “it will haunt this administration & America for years to come.”
These critics flatly disputed Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS in Syria and his contention that U.S. adversaries such as Russia and Iran would take over the battle. They said that a hasty exit would devastate the Kurds, whom the Americans were fighting alongside; embolden hostile regimes; threaten Israel; and sow doubts about U.S resolve elsewhere in the world, particularly in Afghanistan.
Yet while critics of Trump’s decision proclaimed the drawdown against ISIS a geopolitical crisis, longtime experts on Syria policy were neither shocked nor, in some cases, particularly alarmed. “Looking out from a high distance, it’s the right decision,” said Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria under former President Barack Obama. “The U.S. forces can’t fix all of the problems they’ve been sent to Syria to fix.”
Like many in the foreign-policy community, Ford criticized what he called the “sloppy” and “haphazard” rollout of the president’s decision, which took U.S. allies and even senior members of Trump’s government by surprise. “But that’s an implementation problem,” the former ambassador told me in a phone interview on Thursday. “I think the overall thrust of the policy decision was correct.”
It may also be just the start of a broader redeployment of U.S. forces out of the region, which Trump has repeatedly called for against the wishes of Mattis and other top advisers. CNN reported on Thursday, citing a U.S. defense official, that Trump’s decision to remove ground forces from Syria likely also meant an end to air strikes in the country. And in the evening, The New York Times reported that the administration was planning to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan by 7,000, or about half of the total U.S. military presence that remains after 17 years of war. In a resignation letter to the president, Mattis strongly hinted that Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria without consulting U.S. allies had, at least in part, caused him to quit. “While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world,” Mattis wrote, “we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances or showing respect to those allies.”
However hasty, the withdrawal from Syria reflects not only Trump’s oft-expressed desire to pull back on U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, but a more expansive Syria strategy that the president never bought into, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. What had been a narrow mission to combat ISIS seemed to expand over the summer into a proxy war against Iran and Russia. “There’s complete confusion now in the Syria strategy,” Heras said.
Yet Trump’s reticence about the United States’ ongoing involvement in faraway conflicts may resonate beyond his conservative base, finding common cause with millions of Americans who have grown weary of the decades-long post-9/11 wars. And the loud clamor of opposition to the president’s decision stands in contrast to the scale of the U.S. military presence in Syria. The approximately 2,200 troops stationed there are down from a reported peak of around 4,000 and a far cry from the more than 100,000 American soldiers who were deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan at one time. Around 5,000 troops are now fighting ISIS in Iraq.
Most of the troops currently in Syria are not involved in combat operations; they’re serving in a training capacity, protecting the Syria-Turkey border, conducting patrols, or providing cover for supply convoys in and out of the eastern part of the country, Heras said.
That modest scope was no match for the more grandiose ambitions of some in the government who spoke of using the U.S. military to compel the Iranians to withdraw, to secure a peace agreement between Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces, or to keep the peace between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. All those goals were “mission impossible for the troops,” Ford said.
“You’d need a lot more troops and, frankly, you’d need to be willing to fight,” he said. “You might even have to be willing to fight the Russians. Is it really worth it to us to start a war with the Russians in Syria?”
To critics of the decision, however, the presence of U.S. troops in Syria served both a military and geopolitical purpose, no matter the size of the force. It filled a potential vacuum that would otherwise be exploited by ISIS, Iran, Russia, or Turkey, said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “If we are there, other people know that this place is not up for grabs,” he said in an interview. “Our presence created an effect on the ground that left this part of Syria out of the equation for the others, because there are American troops there and no one’s going to want to pick a fight with the United States.”
That has historically been a rationale for U.S. military intervention in hot spots throughout the world. But two successive presidents have now questioned that thinking, at least as it applies to a country like Syria. And Trump, at least, is acting on his skepticism.
Ford told me that when Obama nominated him to serve as the ambassador to Syria in 2011, he asked the intelligence community for a detailed briefing on the Syrian Kurds. He was familiar with the Kurds in Iraq from his five years there, but not with those across the border. “It turned out that we had very little information about northeastern Syria and the Syrian Kurds,” Ford recalled. “It simply wasn’t a region that mattered to the United States. There was no particular American national-security interest in northeastern Syria, so we just didn’t know much about it.”
“Fast-forward seven years,” Ford continued. “Has that really changed? I would say, for the long term, no.”
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