President Trump announced on December 19 he will be pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria in a move that has been heavily criticized by Republicans and allies alike and has left many dumbfounded. Trump said in a statement on Twitter, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Nearly all Middle East experts would disagree that ISIS has been defeated, and a U.N. report in August of this year put the number of ISIS members in Iraq and Syria between 20,000 and 30,000. U.S. State Department personnel have already begun being evacuated from Syria, and it is expected that the military withdrawal will be complete in 60 to 100 days. The move is seen as abandoning U.S. allies, benefiting America’s rivals in the region, along with providing ISIS a chance to regroup.
It appears, yet again, that Trump bypassed the advice of his whole national security team and made the decision unilaterally. Many key administration officials were caught off guard. Just a few days before his announcement the U.S. special representative for Syria, Brett McGurk, was publicly saying that a withdrawal from Syria, even after the defeat of ISIS, by the U.S. would be “reckless.” “It would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now. I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”
The Defense Department was also caught flatfooted by Trump’s announcement. The following day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation, after a last-ditch attempt to get Trump to reverse his decision, citing in his letter of resignation his differing views, not only on Syria, but other issues as well. Mattis showed no praise for Trump in his letter, and his resignation is a blow to those looking for signs of experience and sobriety in the Trump Administration.
The reaction from Trump’s own party was swift and negative upon the announcement of the Syria withdrawal. Senator Lindsay Graham called the move an “Obama-like mistake” and said it would be a “boost to ISIS.” Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement, “This is a colossal, in my mind, mistake. A grave error. This is going to have significant repercussions in the years and months to come.” Senator Ben Sasse predicted, “A lot of American allies will be slaughtered if this retreat is implemented.” One of the few Republicans to come out in support of Trump was isolationist Senator Rand Paul who stated, “We have a president with the courage to declare victory and bring the troops home.”
The Kremlin wasted no time in praising Trump’s announcement by tweeting, “The U.S. decision to pull its troops from Syria creates good prospects for a political solution in that Arab country.” Putin himself stated the following day at his annual press conference, “I don’t think the [U.S. forces] are needed there. And let’s not forget that the presence of [American] troops there is illegitimate. The U.S. is there without backing from the United Nations or an invitation from the Syrian government. Russia is there at the invitation of the Syrian government. But if the U.S. has decided to withdraw, that’s good.”
Kurdish leaders, who have been an instrumental bulwark in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the U.S. effort, were also quick to condemn Trump by saying, “The war against Islamic State has not ended and Islamic State has not been defeated.” They also described Trump’s decision as a “blatant betrayal.” Turkey’s Erdoğan, who helped convince Trump to pull out of Syria, promised to go after American backed Kurdish forces after Trump’s announcement, “In the next months, we will see an operational style aimed at removing the Y.P.G. (Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia) and Daesh (ISIL) elements on the ground in Syria.”
Israel, which is facing a proxy war with Iranian backed Hezbollah from Syria, has been measured in its response. “This is, of course, America’s decision,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We will study the timetable, the mode of operation, and of course the implications for us. In any case, we will take care to protect Israel’s security and to protect ourselves from that arena.” However, Israel’s Channel 10 news reports that Netanyahu tried in vain to stop Trump from pulling American forces out of Syria and that the move was a “slap in the face.” It is also being reported in Israel that there is tremendous “disappointment” in the country over the decision.
France, a leading member of the U.S. alliance in Syria and a victim of several high-profile ISIS terror attacks on its home soil, said it will keep its troops in Northern Syria despite being caught by surprise by the U.S. decision. Florence Parly, the country’s Defense Minister, stated, “Islamic State has not been wiped from the map nor have its roots. The last pockets of this terrorist organization must be defeated militarily once and for all.” France has also scheduled talks with Kurdish allies to discuss how to proceed further without the U.S.
President Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria is based on not only the falsehood that ISIS has been defeated, but it also shows America’s current and potential allies that it is an unreliable partner. As Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass put it, “The biggest casualty of [Donald Trump’s] presidency may well be this country’s reputation for reliability.” Syria has been a difficult problem for American leaders to grapple with and wrong decisions have been made along the way. Nonetheless, there is a vast difference between making a wrong calculation and outright incompetence. The latter undoubtably applies in this case.