What should the U.S. do about our approximately 2,000 troops in Syria? Withdraw? Stay? We’ve heard conflicting ideas from President Trump and some of his top advisers about what should happen.
The president said in a video posted on Twitter Dec. 19 – titled “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!” – that the ISIS terrorist group has been defeated. “Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress criticized the withdrawal as premature, warning that with U.S. troops gone, ISIS terrorists could regroup and gain strength to become a more powerful force in Syria.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk – the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS – resigned after the president’s withdrawal announcement.
The New York Times reported that it had obtained an email McGurk wrote to colleagues stating that “the recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy articulated to us” and “left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered.”
National Security Adviser John Bolton then told reporters in Israel on Jan. 6 that U.S. troops won’t leave Syria until ISIS is defeated and Kurdish troops allied with the U.S. are protected from attacks by Turkey. He said there was no timetable for the withdrawal.
President Trump then said that “we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone” and that “we are pulling back in Syria. We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we’re doing it that quickly:”
Now that President Trump has signed a bill to temporarily reopen the government, perhaps we should expect some bipartisan consensus not only on immigration reform and border security but on countering ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS is unquestionably far weaker than it once was and controls far less territory. But it has not disappeared or ceased operations.
Tragically, on Jan. 16 ISIS terrorists in Syria killed two U.S. service members and two U.S. civilians in a suicide attack in Manbij. We are honoring and mourning our fallen heroes as we have so many times since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Now is a propitious time to debate the efficacy of forward-deploying U.S. military in the Middle East.
In a speech to the American University in Cairo earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined three pillars of the Trump Doctrine for the Middle East: countering Iran and radical Islamic extremism; demanding more from regional partners; and reducing the U.S. military footprint.
Syria is where the administration’s policy will be judged.
The U.S. troops in Syria have been enormously effective. They have trained and equipped the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have taken the fight to ISIS and decimated its ranks.
U.S. troops also deterred Turkey from attacking the Syrian Democratic Forces, the bulk of whom are Kurds. Turkey considers the group an offshoot of a Kurdish group that has been outlawed as a terrorist organization in Turkey.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense is reportedly planning an offensive against the Kurdish forces in Syria. That would cause tactical fratricide among our allies and create breathing space for ISIS to turn into an insurgency and potentially reconstitute itself.
At its zenith, ISIS subjugated roughly 7 million people and controlled oilfields, smuggling routes, arms and military hardware in Syria and Iraq. The group attracted significant numbers of foreign extremists to live and fight in its “caliphate.”
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who sent the first ISIS terrorist attackers to Europe in 2014, has not yet been captured. But with the loss of almost all the territory it controlled, ISIS propaganda has decreased considerably as has the flow of foreign jihadists into Syria and Iraq.
Our Middle East intelligence and policy experts will be on the hook to assess whether ISIS’s ability to recruit followers will be significantly eroded with the loss of its geographic space even if ISIS is transformed into a “virtual caliphate.”
American forces will also need to plan for targeting the remaining estimated 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters in the Iraq-Syria battlespace.
Emphasizing that “when the U.S. retreats, chaos follows,” Pompeo used his Cairo speech to highlight lessons learned from the Obama administration’s precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. That withdrawal helped create the conditions for the massive growth and spread of ISIS in the region.
After removing U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2011, President Obama was forced to send them back in 2014 to fight ISIS. The U.S. currently has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, where ISIS stages occasional attacks. President Trump said in December he has no plans to reduce U.S. troop strength there.
Iranian proxies in Iraq are trying to induce the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that nation to strengthen Iran’s effort to secure pre-eminent influence in Iraq.
In his Cairo speech, Pompeo declared the U.S. would be a faithful ally, but one that would ask our regional partners to take primary responsibility for their own security.
The U.S. is protected by two great oceans and enjoys good relations with our neighbors to the south and north. Over the years, many Americans have strongly desired to avoid becoming entangled in world affairs – especially where U.S. troops could be called into battle.
But the world is more interconnected today, including through cyberspace, than at any time in history. Our enemies can reach us in spite of our geographic separation from other parts of the world provided by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
U.S. efforts at nation-building in other countries have been extraordinarily costly to us – both in the billions of dollars we have spent and more importantly in lost American lives.
Still, despite all the sacrifices of Americans and deaths of members of the U.S. military and civilians, we have been unable to prevent the growth of disaffected people in failed states who are vulnerable to extremists’ exploitation.
Al Qaeda is still a threat. Its leader – Ayman al-Zawahiri – is still committed to his declaration of jihad against the U.S.
Even if the local authorities are unable to eliminate the underlying causes of terrorism we must be careful about outsourcing our national security.
The late Charles Krauthammer articulated a strategy of “forward defense” where we confront our enemies “over there” rather than allow them to plan and execute attacks on our homeland from ungoverned space in failed states. Krauthammer believed we should only risk spilling American blood and treasure when there was “strategic necessity.”
There would be no need to focus on nation-building. All we needed to do was enable and leverage our partners to eliminate threats before they reach our shores.
To our brave patriots serving in harm’s way, mission success has meant no attack on the U.S. homeland.
Right now we need a bipartisan assessment of the terrorist threats to our national security that emanates from Syria and Iraq.
Key questions include: How has the ISIS threat decreased since its loss of geographic space? Is ISIS in a position to reconstitute itself? Is the U.S. the indispensable ally, without whom our Kurdish and Turkish allies will turn on each other in lieu of keeping up the fight against ISIS remnants?
With this information in hand, we can consider whether our forward deployed U.S. military and intelligence personnel should withdraw from Syria and if so, under what timetable.
President Trump has consistently argued for bringing the troops out of harm’s way in overseas combat zones and home to their families. We just need to be sure they are not needed over there, so that ISIS terrorists do not target our citizens over here.