The deaths of four Americans in a suicide bombing in Syria this week is not necessarily an argument against President Trump’s plan to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from that country. Even if the attack were orchestrated by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility, it’s the sort of terrorist incident that sadly will continue to be a threat even if most remnants of the group are suppressed and even if some U.S. forces remain in Syria for months or years.
Nevertheless, the attack is a reminder that Trump vastly oversimplified the situation last month when he declared that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.” Worse, the announcement came out of the blue, without due deliberation.
The president’s announcement of a rapid withdrawal from Syria led to the resignations of Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the global coalition against Islamic State. It also alarmed the Kurdish militias who have fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State. Without the protection of U.S. troops, the Kurds fear that they would be overwhelmed by Turkish forces.
Consternation gave way to confusion when Trump and his national security advisor, John Bolton, sent conflicting messages about how quickly the withdrawal would take place and under what conditions. First, Trump said the troops would be “coming back now.” Then Bolton said that troops wouldn’t leave northeastern Syria until Islamic State was defeated and Kurdish fighters were protected. A few days later, a U.S. military official told the Associated Press that the withdrawal had begun — although that announcement may have been confined to equipment.
Trump later said that “we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” — whatever that means. The president also has suggested that U.S. commandos based in Iraq could launch missions into Syria.
In other words, almost a month after Trump sprang the idea of a withdrawal on the nation and his own advisors, it remains alarmingly unclear how the administration plans to achieve that objective and fulfill his pledge to eradicate the remnants of Islamic State. The timing remains mysterious as well.
Trump campaigned for the presidency as a critic of unnecessary military intervention. He is right to worry about the dangers of mission creep and of unsuccessful military endeavors that lack an exit strategy. But the impulsive announcement of the withdrawal from Syria, followed by contradictory explanations about how it would be implemented, has shown the Trump administration at its amateurish worst.
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