President Trump’s decision to rapidly remove 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria raises two questions: whether a precipitous withdrawal makes sense and whether this decision is the result of careful study and consultation with experts and U.S. allies in the region.
The answer to both questions seems to be no. Not for the first time, a president prone to impulsiveness and improvisation has made an abrupt decision that could have drastic consequences unless more experienced officials are allowed to moderate its impact.
We say this even though we have been sympathetic to the president’s opposition to an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces in Syria, where they were dispatched as part of the effort to uproot Islamic State, which even the intervention-averse Obama administration regarded as a unique danger requiring extraordinary action. We also have been skeptical of some of the arguments for such a prolonged presence, particularly the notion that keeping a couple of thousand U.S. troops will force the departure of Iranian forces and surrogates from Syria or otherwise counter Iranian influence.
Trump is right to worry about leaving U.S. forces in Syria in perpetuity. But there are serious arguments for postponing the departure, and scant evidence that he gave them a fair hearing.
First and foremost is the fact that remnants of Islamic State in Syria continue to pose a threat. Trump tweeted Wednesday: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” But as Brett McGurk, Trump’s representative to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said last week: “Obviously, it would be reckless if we were just to say, ‘Well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now.”
A second argument against immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops is the need to protect Kurdish fighters in Syria, who have been U.S. allies in the war against Islamic State. Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to be a terrorist group and an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which long has conducted an insurgency against the Turkish government.
Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to launch a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria "within a matter of days.” It’s possible that Trump was moved to make his withdrawal announcement by a fear that a Turkish incursion would put U.S. forces in harm’s way. But the continued presence of U.S. troops so far has been an insurance policy against action by Turkey while the U.S. explores the creation of a buffer zone between YPG fighters and the Turkish border.
On Monday, James F. Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative for Syria engagement, challenged a claim by Erdogan that Trump had reacted positively to the idea of a Turkish offensive against YPG forces. “We think that any offensive into northeast Syria by anyone is a bad idea,” Jeffrey said. But the withdrawal announced by Trump could embolden Turkey to suspect that an attack on the Kurds wouldn’t bring much of a U.S. protest.
An overly hasty withdrawal also makes it less likely that the Kurds’ interests will be protected in any new political arrangement in Syria, assuming Assad is amenable to international efforts to find a political solution to Syria’s civil war.
In explaining Trump’s decision, administration officials insisted that the campaign against Islamic State would continue. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted that the U.S. and its allies “will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support and any means of infiltrating our borders.” A senior administration official suggested that no one should have been surprised by Wednesday’s announcement, because Trump had been consistent about this topic going back to his campaign.
Perhaps, but the decision was reportedly made over the objections of Pentagon officials and came as a surprise to Congress and, it seems likely, to some members of the administration. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that the president just "woke up" and made the decision. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said: “A lot of us were blindsided.”