President Donald Trump shocked US allies and pleased rivals with his announcement that he would pull troops out of Syria. There are currently about 2,000 US troops in Syria, most of them to train and support local forces fighting ISIS. Trump said that after ‘defeating ISIS’ there was no need for America to remain vested in Syria. Analysts believe this move is a strategic blunder that could open the way for an ISIS rebound.
What did Trump shock the world with?
President Donald Trump once famously said he knew more about ISIS than US generals do. Now he wants to prove it. He has won so much against ISIS in Syria, there is nothing more left to win.
- Seated at the head of his Situation Room conference table in March, Trump was adamant: American troops must come home from Syria. He had just announced as much to a crowd in Ohio. The assembled military and national security advisers told him the move was rash and unwise. So he gave them six months.
- Eight months later, President Trump has ordered staff to execute the “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of US military from Syria, declaring that the US has defeated ISIS. The planning for the withdrawal is already underway – against the advice of those same officials, who warned in April that Russia and Iran would gain stronger footholds in Syria when the US presence there evaporates. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 19 morning.
- In overruling his generals and civilian advisers, Trump fulfilled his frequently expressed desire to bring home American forces from a messy foreign entanglement. But his decision plunges the administration’s Middle East strategy into disarray, rattling allies like Britain and Israel and forsaking Syria’s ethnic Kurds, who have been faithful partners in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
The abrupt, chaotic nature of the move — and the opposition it immediately provoked on Capitol Hill and beyond — raised questions about how Trump will follow through with the full withdrawal. Even after the president’s announcement, officials said, the Pentagon and State Department continued to try to talk him out of it.
But patience is not one of Trump’s virtues: “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
Why does Trump want the ‘boys’ back?
The U.S. began airstrikes in Syria in 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year to battle the Islamic State, or ISIS, and train Syrian rebels in a country torn apart by civil war.
- Trump’s declaration of victory was far from unanimous, and officials said U.S. defense and military leaders were trying to dissuade him from ordering the withdrawal right up until the last minute. His decision immediately triggered demands from Congress — including leading Republicans — for more information and a formal briefing on the matter. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, just returned from Afghanistan, said he was meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late in the day.
- The decision will fulfil Trump’s long-stated goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that the IS group remains a threat and could regroup in Syria’s long-running civil war. U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.
- Trump, in a pair of tweets summarizing his worldview, justified his decision to order American troops withdrawn from Syria while promising that the military would instead put resources into building the wall he’s long espoused along the U.S.-Mexico border. That declaration from Trump came shortly after another Twitter missive in which he declared that “because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!”
Yes, you read that right. Trump feels the military should rather be used in building a wall against Mexico than fight ISIS, which is defeated anyway.
- The joint tweets offered perhaps the clearest distillation to date of Trump’s “America first” policy: a simple and abrupt vow to disengage from one of the world’s most nettlesome conflicts, with a potentially premature declaration of victory over the militants of Islamic State, coupled with an unlikely promise that the world’s most sophisticated fighting force would be deployed to build a wall around the homeland.
- The order to withdraw the roughly 2,000 troops currently in Syria provided the latest example of how Trump’s instinct to turn inward, whatever the risk and costs to the United States’ influence and reputation abroad, may clash with the views of the generals and foreign policy experts who serve inside and outside his administration.
- Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, for example, a retired four-star general who once commanded American forces in the Middle East, was pushed aside by President Barack Obama for advocating more forceful engagement in the region. Pentagon officials over the last two years have repeatedly clashed with Trump’s desires to limit the kind of muscular U.S. role in the Mideast that Mattis has advocated in the past.
- Trump’s about-face came only weeks after some of his own advisers said U.S. troops would remain in Syria until Iran, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, agreed to remove its own troops from the country. That expanded mission appeared to reflect the wishes of anti-Iran hard-liners, including national security adviser John Bolton, rather than Trump’s views.
- Despite apparent reservations inside the administration and swift criticism from the outside, the orders match well with Trump’s political brand. On the campaign trail and in a major speech outlining his foreign policy one year ago, Trump drew consistent applause when he bashed leaders who “engaged in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home.”
- Trump’s announcement raised fears among national security professionals that he might follow the Syria decision with a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, something he has long wanted to do.Either exit involves a strategic gamble by Trump and could also cost the president politically if Islamic State violence resurges or the region destabilizes during the 2020 election campaign.
Or will it? He can always blame Obama for handling Syria so badly that ISIS emerged out of it.
When can the withdrawal backfire?
Senator Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was “blindsided” by the report and called the decision “a disaster in the making.” He said, “The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran.”
- Trump’s declaration that ISIS had been “defeated” was not endorsed by allies who have fought alongside the US in Syria. Rather, officials in France and the UK stressed the threat the armed group continues to pose threat to their interests. “Much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, Daesh (ISIS) will remain a threat,” the UK’s Foreign Office said in a statement. “As the United States has made clear, these developments in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We will continue to work with members of the Coalition on achieving this.”
- Trump announced the immediate and rapid withdrawal of troops from Syria — just two days after his special representative “publicly pledged that the US commitment to Syria would not waiver.”And barely two months after Trump himself said we would remain there until three basic goals were met: defeating ISIS, rolling back Iran’s influence and achieving a political solution. As a result, he’s discarded his entire Syria and Iran strategy “at a single stroke, giving up any and all US influence in the region.” That will have “devastating and dangerous consequences.” The president has taken a bad policy and turned it “into a strategic blunder that will come back to haunt us.”
ISIS is undefeated
- No serious person believes Trump’s claim that ISIS has been defeated. In fact, on Dec. 18, a State Department spokesman, who clearly had no idea of the presidential announcement to come, told reporters: “U.S. forces are present in the campaign to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. We’ve made significant progress recently in the campaign, and — but the job is not yet done.”
- Indeed, it’s not. The United Nations reported in August that the Islamic State still has 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Acts of terrorism attributed to the Islamic State have picked up in “liberated” areas, and experts such as Hassan Hassan, co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” have been warning that the group is poised to make a comeback in Syria. We have seen the Islamic State pull off just such a resurrection in the past: Under its previous guise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, it had been all but defeated by 2011 when President Barack Obama ordered a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. Before long the terrorist group was stronger than ever, establishing a brutal caliphate sprawling across Syria and Iraq.
- The risks of such a comeback now grow markedly. America’s Kurdish and Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces will be hard-put to resist the group on their own, much less deal with the Turkish threat against the Kurds. The likely outcome is that they will partner with the genocidal Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies — Iran and Russia.
If administration officials and Trump’s allies in Congress were distressed by the decision, however, there was little excuse for them to be surprised. Trump has long railed against foreign entanglements begun by his predecessors and vowed this spring to bring American troops home.
Where is the news being received warmly?
Trump’s victory is being celebrated by Russia and Iran.
- “Assad must go’’ was the U.S. mantra for much of the eight-year Syrian war. But with Iranian ground forces and Russian air power on his side, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad didn’t go anywhere.Instead, he gradually wrested back control of the country from various rebels and jihadists. The only large area of Syria still outside his hands is the northeast.
- That’s where the bulk of Syria’s oil is -– and where U.S. soldiers are currently stationed. After Trump’s shock announcement, they’re now effectively in the departure lounge, waiting for a plane home – and leaving their local allies, mostly Kurds who Turkish forces in the region have in their crosshairs, in the lurch.
- For the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance, the path to recapturing the whole country just opened up. For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too, a roadblock has been removed. Erdogan already grabbed a chunk of northwest Syria, driving out Kurdish fighters he views as terrorists, and now he’s threatening an imminent push into the northeast too. His early targets may include border cities like Kobani, where the Kurds took heavy casualties fighting off Islamic State with U.S. air support.
- A partnership with an alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, is credited with playing a major role in the virtual elimination of the jihadist group ISIS after it overran large swathes of Syria four years ago, imposing brutal rule on almost eight million people in the country and neighbouring Iraq.
- ISIS barely existed when the revolt against Assad broke out in 2011. It horrified the world by rapidly taking over swaths of Iraq and Syria and beheading captives on camera. But after years of pounding by the military might of America, Russia, Iran and Syria, it’s been reduced to pockets today. As Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate shrank by 99 percent, the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance and the U.S.-led coalition raced each other to seize the territory it vacated.
In Congress and foreign policy think-tanks, critics lined up to denounce Trump’s move. “An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Russia,’’ Senator Graham of South Carolina said on Twitter, voicing a widespread view. The initial reaction from Moscow was positive. Hours after Trump’s announcement, the Russian Embassy in Washington sent out a statement of support, saying the decision “creates good prospects for a political solution.”
Just not one the U.S. will have much say in.
Who have been thrown to the wolves again?
“The U.S. withdrawal means handing over our necks to Turkey’s knives,” said a Syrian Kurd, speaking from the town of Rmelan in northeastern Syria, near the Abu Hajar air base used for years by U.S. forces. “My mother is crying on the phone. I feel that my heart will stop,”he said.
- Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria will be hailed as a victory in Russia and Iran and a betrayal among Kurdish and Arab opposition forces that have waged a seven-year war against the Damascus regime.
- Whether or not the Islamic State can rebound, after being driven out of most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, for now it is the Kurdish minority that is caught in the middle. The Kurdish leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces refrained from reacting to the announced withdrawal immediately, with many saying they were waiting to learn the details.
- But Alan Hassan, a Kurdish journalist based in Qamishli, Syria, said the Kurds were simply stunned. “We are shocked,” he said. “The atmosphere here is so negative.” Analysts were even less restrained. Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations, said the United States was on the “verge of another historic betrayal of the Kurds,” which could lead to a prolonged battle inside Syria between the Kurds and the Turks, who consider the Kurds a threat to their government.
The Kurds proved to be the Americans’ most effective allies in the fight. But they are left with nothing.
- Within a year, relying on the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria and Iraqi Kurdish fighters in Iraq, the United States and its allies had ousted the Islamic State from more than 99 percent of the territory it had controlled across the two countries.
- But since President Trump took office in 2017 promising a withdrawal from Syria, the question of what happens to the Kurds, who had fought and died in the American campaign, had been floating in the ether. In January, American officials proposed the creation of a 30,000-strong American-backed, Kurdish-led border force in northeastern Syria that would remain in Syria for at least two years to help protect America’s Kurdish allies.
- Turkey protested loudly about the presence of what it called a “terror army” on its border, and the plan was quietly walked back. The Syrian Democratic Forces are an offshoot of a Kurdish militia known as the Y.P.G., which is allied with a Turkish Kurdish separatist group, the P.K.K. Turkey considers them one and the same.
- Days later, Turkey invaded a Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria. The fighting pitted one American ally against another. The United States largely stood by and watched as Kurdish fighters abandoned the fight against the Islamic State in the south to defend their brothers in the north. The scenario is now poised to repeat, but on a larger scale.
The Kurds deserved better
- The Kurds are among the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world, with some 30 million concentrated in an area straddling Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. A minority in all four countries, the Kurds speak their own language, with several dialects. Most are Sunni Muslims.
- Denied their own state when colonial powers drew the map of the modern Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds have long pushed for autonomy or outright independence in all four countries, and have often been brutally repressed. They fought against ISIS with all their heart and might in the hope that the Americans will help them get a safe place. 660 Kurds were killed fighting under the insignia of Syrian democratic forces, supported by the United States, in the battle to free Raqqa, the de facto Syrian capital of the ISIS Caliphate.
- Before this betrayal, the West had already betrayed the Kurds three times in the last three years.The first time in Kobane, the besieged Kurdish city at the border with Turkey, where, in a battle that only “revealed the West’s helplessness in the face of radical jihad”, the inhabitants fought to escape a certain death under ISIS. After Kobane, the Kurds were abandoned during their referendum for independence from Iraq last September. Then were betrayed in Afrin, the Syrian canton where many minorities of the Syrian war took refuge, which came under attack by Turkey. 900 Kurds died fighting the Turkish forces as the Americans stood by.
Kurdish dreams of establishing an independent homeland have thrived since the Ottoman Empire, and have continued despite the betrayal of the Kurdish cause at the end of the First World War. They have now been betrayed four times in four years. If the Kurds have to stand any realistic chance of establishing their own state, they must learn to fight and negotiate alone. They are not short on bravery. By many accounts they were the only force that sent chills down the spines of ISIS fighters. The courage of the women Kurdish fighters was celebrated in the West. They were, after all, the ones who sent ISIS men to hell (ISIS believes that men who died at the hands of a woman go to hell).
Now, the Kurds have to prepare to be bombed by Turkey’s fighter jets, which – by the way – are made in America. A French analyst said it all when he wrote in May, during the battle of Afrin, “The Kurds, if they did not deserve a state, were at least worthy of our protection, especially after helping us to stop those who slit our throats on the boulevards of Paris.”
How is the ISIS doing?
In August, the US defence department estimated there were as many 14,000 ISIS militants in Syria and 17,000 others in Iraq, where they no longer fully control any territory.
- Many militants have gone underground and returned to their insurgent roots, carrying out bombings, assassinations and kidnappings while attempting to rebuild their networks.
- More than 5,600 ISIS supporters who travelled to Syria and Iraq from dozens of countries around the world have also returned home. An October 2017 study by the US-based intelligence group the Soufan Center found that about 1,200 had returned to the European Union – including 425 to the UK, and about 300 each to Germany and France.
- UN experts meanwhile estimate that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 ISIS militants in Libya and about 4,000 in Afghanistan. ISIS also has a presence in South East Asia, West Africa, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel. Individuals inspired by the group’s ideology also continue to carry out attacks elsewhere with France being their regular target.
But remember why ISIS could succeed.
- ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was formed by Sunni Arab militants after the US-led invasion in 2003 and became a major force in the country’s insurgency. In 2011, the group – now known as Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – joined the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where it found a safe haven and easy access to weapons.
- At the same time, it took advantage of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, as well as widespread Sunni anger at the sectarian policies of the country’s Shia-led government. In 2013, ISI began seizing control of territory in Syria and changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL).
- The following year, ISIS overran large swathes of northern and western Iraq, proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate”, and became known as “Islamic State”. A subsequent advance into areas controlled by Iraq’s Kurdish minority, and the killing or enslaving of thousands of members of the Yazidi religious group, prompted a US-led multinational coalition to begin air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq in August 2014.
ISIS was – in a way – never a state. It’s an ideology and there is no reason to believe ideologies can ever be conclusively defeated. Ask the internet.
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