- President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops in Syria on Wednesday.
- The move clashed with stated goals of his own administration, and recalled his betrayal of the US intelligence community in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- But he likely saved the US from another protracted Middle Eastern conflict with no clear mission or end in sight.
- Many saw Trump as giving up Syria to Putin, possibly for clandestine reasons. But Trump didn’t give Syria away, Putin took it with hard-fought battles starting in 2015.
- The Pentagon, the State Department, top Republicans, and Trump’s national security advisor all wanted or gave reasons for the US to stay in Syria, but they’re ultra-hawkish.
President Donald Trump made a shock decision to pull US troops out of Syria on Wednesday.
The move clashed with the stated goals of his own Pentagon and State Department and recalled his infamous betrayal of the US intelligence community, where he sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin in denying that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
But he likely saved the US from another protracted Middle Eastern conflict with no clear mission or end in sight.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted as reports said that around 2,000 US military personnel would be leaving the country.
This directly contradicted his own National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the Pentagon. Defence officials said just hours before that the US was committed to staying in Syria indefinitely to defeat ISIS.
But Bolton, Pompeo, and the Pentagon weren’t elected to lead the country. Trump was.
“Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
The Pentagon notes that ISIS still has tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and that the terror group remains a regional threat. But the formerly US-led coalition to defeat ISIS remains intact.
France, Britain, Germany, and about 70 other nations can stay back and fight ISIS to the last man if they want.
ISIS believes in holding territory as a “caliphate” or empire under the rule of their brutal and twisted version of Islam. The US, alongside its partners, has robbed them of that. The group at one point held about 90% of Syria’s oilfields and agrarian land. Now they hold nothing.
Additionally, the US air war against ISIS has killed hundreds of civilians in schools, mosques, and markets.
While ISIS hasn’t been completely defeated as Trump said, it is up to the president to determine when a foe like ISIS, which now mostly exists as a network or idea on certain propaganda channels and encrypted apps, has been satisfactorily defeated.
Trump the dove
While top members of Congress and prominent media personalities criticised Trump apparently ignoring his top staffers, the most strident criticism has come from the anti-Iran hardliners.
Pompeo, Bolton, and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis share one thing in common: They’re ultra-hawkish on Iran.
Bolton in September said US troops are not leaving Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.”
The most hawkish Republicans from around Congress also wrote Trump a letter warning of him against the “premature and costly mistake” of leaving Syria.
Trump brought down enormous economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran by withdrawing from the Iran deal, but stopped short of outright military confrontation.
Iran has an estimated 70,000 fighters in Syria. It has thousands more in Iraq. Iran is a sovereign nation that can deploy troops outside its borders whenever it wants, provided the host nation agrees to it.
As a policy goal, committing US troops to Syria until every single Iranian soldier returns home is a losing equation for the US that allows Iran to impose costs on Washington.
For Trump, it seems he’s happy to make ISIS other countries’ problems and abandon the doomed concept of “forever war” in Syria, which would be a means to contain Iran.
A gift for Putin?
National Security Action, an advocacy group founded by foreign policy aides to former President Barack Obama, sent a statement to Business Insider that implied Trump may have initiated part of a secret agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkey, citing gaps in the public record of Trump’s relations with those two.
Trump’s withdrawal certainly solidifies a military victory in Syria for Putin, who saved Syrian President Bashar Assad from near certain defeat in 2015. But Trump by no means “gave” Syria to Putin.
Putin won in Syria when he launched a massive and victorious military campaign against rebel forces there more than three years ago. Putin did so at a time when Obama had refused for four years to meaningfully intervene in the fighting despite promising to do so if chemical weapons use continued.
Putin’s dominion over Syria had been a foregone conclusion for years. Syria invited Russia. Nearby Iran supports Russia. Russia isn’t the dominant military power in the most consequential conflict in the Middle East because of a gift from Trump, but because they moved a ton of warplanes and contractors into Syria and won hard-fought victories. They have also suffered humiliating defeats.
Also, Trump’s supposed gift to Putin actually comes with heavy strings attached. Now, as Syria’s saviour, the responsibility to fight ISIS where it crops up in Syria may fall on Russia. Why not let Russia do that dirty work?
Similarly Israel, Iran’s main regional enemy, has proven extremely willing to bomb Iranian forces in Syria when it sees them getting too close to their borders.
“Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work,” tweeted Trump on Thursday. “ISIS hits us they are doomed!”
Why Trump says he pulled out
Trump has never visited US troops deployed overseas in combat, and it’s reportedly because he doesn’t believe in the mission of meandering fights in places like Afghanistan.
In announcing the pull-out, Trump again said he found it difficult to talk to the families of citizens killed in war while calling to bring home our troops.
By accepting the hard reality of Syria and pulling the US out before national pride or overconfidence dragged the nation into another destabilizing, nation-building mission jacked up through the roof with wasted money, Pentagon jargon, and dead Americans, Trump may have showed his greatest act of military leadership and dodged another forever war.
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