Just three weeks ago, President Donald Trump tweeted a video of himself declaring victory over the Islamic State and adding that the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria are “all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
“Now” first meant 30 days, according to Pentagon officials. Then it meant 120 days. Today, it’s anyone’s guess.
Preconditions for a U.S. withdrawal, unveiled Sunday by national security adviser John Bolton as he rushed to the Middle East to do damage control, suggest an indefinite timeline.
Bolton assured Israelis that U.S. troops will stay until the last of ISIS, which stubbornly holds a sliver of the Syrian-Iraq border area, is thoroughly defeated and Turkey disavows aggression against Kurdish Syrian forces. (In the U.S.-led drive to vanquish ISIS in Syria, Kurds did much of the fighting and dying. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, by contrast, sees them as terrorists and slammed Bolton on Tuesday.)
If this dizzying execution of U.S. policy has somehow ended up, at least for the moment, in a better place, it has not been without casualties. The United States lost a valuable Defense secretary in the resignation of James Mattis and a talented special presidential envoy to the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS when Brett McGurk quit in protest over the announced abrupt withdrawal.
The primary U.S. goal in Syria remains the destruction of ISIS. But precipitously pulling out America’s relatively modest commitment of forces would benefit U.S. adversaries and hurt its allies:
—The U.S.-led coalition supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of Kurdish troops and some Arab fighters, controls a quarter of the nation. That land holds 95 percent of Syria’s oil, much of its gas and the bountiful Euphrates River valley, a tangible loss for the brutal Damascus dictatorship of Bashar Assad. . .
—Russian President Vladimir Putin exulted at news of Trump’s initial decision. Moscow’s growing influence in the Middle East, bolstered by an expanded Russian military in Syria to support Assad’s crackdown on rebellion, was offset only by the U.S.-led coalition controlling northeastern Syria and airspace above it.
—A quick pullout from Syria serves Iran’s interests. . . Syrian territory controlled by . . . withdrawal would open a land bridge through northern Iraq for Iran to more easily and cheaply arm and multiply its forces.
Through the long turmoil of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have come to abhor endless military engagements. But the U.S. military has also learned lessons and refined tactics. Its frugal footprint in Syria, working with major allies in the air and on the ground with tens of thousands of Kurdish and Arab fighters, helped turn the tables against Islamic extremism there.
This was accomplished with four American deaths since fighting ISIS began in 2015 in Syria. This year’s projected cost, before the pullout was announced, was $1.35 billion, a fraction of the $45 billion spent annually in Afghanistan.
Far too much is at stake in Syria to conduct foreign policy with impulsive pronouncements on Twitter.