[Eli Lake] Trump courts catastrophe in Syria

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Dec 20, 2018 - 17:02
  • Updated : Dec 20, 2018 - 17:02

President Donald Trump is on the verge of making a spectacularly bad decision. The White House is soon expected to announce its plans to remove the 2,000 US troops now serving in northeastern Syria.

This is not totally unexpected. Trump ran for president in part on the idea of smashing the Islamic State group, but he also said there was no point in trying to stabilize the country after the terrorists were defeated. Since getting elected, he has regularly signaled that its time for US forces to leave Syria. In March, he promised the US would be getting out of Syria “like, very soon.” In June, he floated a plan for an all-Arab army to replace the US in a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Nonetheless, special operations forces have remained in Syria, where they train and fight alongside largely Kurdish troops. Together they coordinate airstrikes against the remaining pockets of Islamic State group fighters and serve as a buffer between Turkey and Kurdish militias.

This time it looks like Trump is serious. To start, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, the US military has already begun telling its partners to prepare for a US withdrawal. Instead of tamping down the news, Trump himself tweeted Wednesday, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

As usual, Trump’s assessment is hyperbolic. It is also technically correct. The Islamic State group has lost enormous amounts of territory, thanks to a powerful alliance between US and Kurdish fighters. But it’s not that simple.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, told the Atlantic Council this week that America’s goal is the “enduring defeat of ISIS.” The adjective is important. “ISIS will come back if the underlying conditions are receptive to that kind of ideological movement,” Jeffrey said. That’s a fancy way of saying a withdrawal without a plan to protect civilians from barrel bombs and Iranian-backed militias will create the same kind of opening al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have seized before.

Beyond the Islamic State group, there is also Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to launch a new offensive against America’s Kurdish allies unless the US promises to cut them off. These are the same Kurds who, when the war against the Islamic State group was at its most dire in 2015, were the only force on the ground in Syria willing and capable of working with Americans. That’s one of the reasons why the US began working with the autonomous Kurdish authorities then and continues to do so today.

Capitulating now to Turkish demands would send a terrible message. Erdogan would conclude that threatening US interests pays off. Meanwhile, other groups that have joined the American side in the Middle East would conclude the US is an unreliable ally. It’s particularly galling to contemplate a withdrawal just as Kurdish forces are engaged in fierce fighting to liberate one of the last Islamic State group holdouts, the town of Hanin.

Yet the US is already preparing the Kurds for an end to their relationship. As Jeffrey told the Atlantic Council: “We do not have permanent relationships with substate entities.” His mission for now is to get a political process moving forward through the United Nations to end the fighting and form a more inclusive government that can begin rebuilding the country.

That’s a fine goal. But now that the president has telegraphed America’s intention to leave Syria, the US will have even less leverage to shape it.

Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI. -- Ed.