In a move shocking to U.S. policymakers and foreign allies alike, President Trump has announced his intention to withdraw all American troops from Syria. In explaining the rather abrupt decision, Trump recently tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” According to U.S. defense and administration officials, planning for the pullout is already underway.
Many from Trump’s own party were caught totally off guard. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally told media that he was “pretty annoyed” by the announcement. Graham went so far as to call the decision “Obama-like,” probably a reference to Barack Obama’s decision to pull troops out of Iraq in 2011 which left the window open for the development of ISIS. Likely speaking for many other policymakers other than himself, Graham demanded the administration “explain [its] policy, not in a tweet, but before Congress answering questions.” Even though many are expressing shock, no one observing Trump over the past several months could have eliminated this scenario as a possibility. Since early this year, Trump has been making promises to imminently withdraw the U.S. from Syria. “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” Trump told supporters at an Ohio event in March.
But it seems no one thought the president would actually do it. And for good reason. Trump’s own military officials have been consistent in their stance: despite major gains in the Syrian conflict, the continued presence of American troops in the country is still absolutely vital. This position is correct for a variety of reasons, each one independently important to U.S. interests.
The United States is not the only Western power invested in Syria. Currently there is a respectable coalition of America’s friends fighting in the war-torn country.
Britain has maintained a presence in Syria for the past four years. Operation Shader of the UK’s military involves some 1,000 personnel from all three branches of the British armed services. France is another example of a European ally heavily invested in Syria. Operation Chammal, the broader French effort to eradicate ISIS, has seen over 3,000 troops deployed throughout the Middle East. All of the coalition’s efforts have been in close cooperation up until this point. Leaving Syria abruptly means leaving our allies holding the bag.
The Kurds have been indispensable in combating militancy in both Iraq and Syria over the past six years. Throughout this period, the Kurdish people and their militias have come to rely on the U.S. for weapons and other forms of logistical support. Simply put, the Kurds—concentrated in the area where the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq meet—are flanked between a lot of people who don’t like them; ISIS to the southeast, the Assad regime to the west, and Turkey to the north. An American pullout from Syria would be all but abandoning our Kurdish friends.
In response to the build-up of its adversaries in the country, Israel has been forced to engage in the Syrian theater for the past several years. Hundreds of IDF operations (many of which remain undisclosed) have been executed in both land and air against targets in Syria. The fact that America has been an active participant in the Syria chaos has given Israel more room to maneuver and conduct operations when it feels necessary. With the U.S. out of the picture, Israel will lose much—albeit probably not all—of its strategic flexibility in the country.
The truth is, no one is particularly crazy about Iranian expansion in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the only actor really committed to opposing it full force, however, has been the U.S. administration under Trump. Circumstances in Syria in recent years have allowed much of the country to become a forward operations base of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). U.S. forces in Syria have been an impediment to Iran’s aspirations. In America’s absence, Turkey and Russia, both of whom are much more sympathetic to Tehran, will be the ones calling the shots.