No one knows why the president pulled the plug on Syria now, but NATO and South Korea should be worried.
The news that President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria is a shock but should hardly be a surprise. Trump telegraphs his punches, and last spring he made clear he wanted to pull U.S. forces out immediately. Military commanders talked him out of it by asking for several more months. But he didn’t change his mind, and they were on the clock.
Since then, administration officials have pretended this issue was resolved. They made a series of chest-thumping statements about how the U.S. would stay in Syria to sustain the pressure on ISIS and take the fight to Iranian forces there. Yet there was never any evidence the president was on board with this approach – whenever he talks about the Middle East, he sounds more like Bernie Sanders than George W. Bush. And there was never any attempt to reconcile the administration’s stated goals in the region – ratcheting up pressure on Iran, fighting ISIS, and “reasserting” U.S. influence – with Trump’s core objective of getting out altogether. This shows, once again, the futility of taking Trump administration officials at their word. With the kind of boss they have, they are usually left to faking it or free-lancing.
While it makes sense to recalibrate the U.S. force presence in the Middle East more broadly, this decision is a mistake for several reasons. First, it is wildly premature: ISIS has been degraded but is hardly defeated. Trump loves to spike the football, but his own intelligence community reports ISIS is regrouping with tens of thousands of fighters remaining. Second, this decision abandons America’s Kurdish partners, who have effectively been our ground troops to fight ISIS and relied on U.S. forces for equipment and training. Without the American presence, expect the ISIS threat to grow and metastasize, and the U.S. will lose valuable intelligence assets (as we did in Iraq after withdrawing in 2011). Third, this undermines American leverage to negotiate some kind of diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, as unlikely as that may be.
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Finally, it cedes the ground in southern Syria completely to Iran. Remember all the talk about the U.S. military working to prevent the Iranian “land bridge”? This is really bad news for Israel, whose leaders fantasized about Trump being strong where Obama allegedly was weak, and it exposes the administration’s approach towards Iran for what it is: bluster without a strategy.
Trump’s decision also fails to heed a lesson the Obama administration learned after it Iraq in 2011. Although there has been a lot of revisionist history about what led to Obama’s decision to follow the 2008 agreement with Iraq to withdraw U.S. troops, there is no question the administration should have done more to prevent the breakdown in Iraqi security that led to the explosion of ISIS in 2014. While maintaining a few thousand troops in Iraq would not have prevented ISIS from rising – just as maintaining a few thousand troops in Syria alone will not lead to ISIS’s defeat – such a small residual force would have been enough to keep a lid on the situation, at least giving the U.S. greater visibility into the deteriorating situation and therefore more time to react.
It is unclear what Trump thinks he is getting for this. There is almost no agitation from Congress or the public for pulling troops out of Syria, and it is something the Pentagon can resource and sustain without affecting other priorities. So why doesn’t Trump see this as a relatively safe investment worth making? Maybe it is because he wants to get out of Turkey’s way as it embarks on a misguided intervention against our Kurdish partners, or because he wants to cut a deal with Russia. Or perhaps the most likely explanation is the simplest: because he does not see the value in maintaining U.S. troops almost anywhere. To him, it’s a bad deal.
Therefore, beyond what it means for Syria, Trump’s sudden decision should be seen as particularly ominous. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the U.S. troop presence in South Korea or its continued commitment to NATO. He sees both as antiquated missions and examples of allies ripping off the American taxpayer, and he has repeatedly threatened to pull the plug on both, only to be walked back by his advisers. There is no reason to expect the pattern to change. So with Syria behind him, those mission are up next. Don’t be surprised.