President Trump on Tuesday suggested he was ready to pull American troops out of Syria. “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
There are currently about 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria. The White House decided earlier this year to leave troops in Syria for at least one year while conducting periodic assessments of the conditions there. Trump surprised his advisers last week when he told an Ohio audience that troops would be coming out of Syria “very soon.”
Trump says he will meet with his national security team before making a final decision, but has already ordered the State Department to freeze over $200 million that had been allocated for basic recovery efforts in Syria.
Not surprisingly, Turkey and Russia welcomed the suggestion that US troops would be leaving Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Trump’s remarks showed the president’s commitment to bringing troops home following the victory over ISIS.
Others insist that ISIS is not defeated, and that pulling out now could facilitate a resurgence. “We want to keep eyes on the prize – on ISIS – because ISIS is not finished,” warns Brett McGurk, the special US envoy for the global coalition against ISIS. “We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.”
Despite having lost nearly 99% of the territory it once claimed for its “caliphate” in Syria, says McGurk, ISIS is still able to launch guerrilla attacks against coalition forces. According to estimates, as many as 3,000 ISIS fighters remain alive in Syria. Just last week, one US soldier and one UK soldier were killed in an attack that US military officials have blamed on ISIS.
Alongside worries of a resurgence are fears that Iran, Turkey, and/or Russia will rush in to fill the power vacuum if ISIS is defeated and the US exits too quickly.
“We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011, when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January.
Trump’s suggestion to pull out of Syria also alarmed Saudi Arabia and Israel – who both worry that America’s absence could exacerbate the civil war and facilitate the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
SA Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that a US departure could pave the way for Iran to establish a “Shiite corridor” with anti-Saudi allies in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. “If you take those troops out from east Syria, you will lose that checkpoint,” said the prince just days after meeting face-to-face with President Trump. “We believe American troops should stay for at least the mid-term, if not the long term.”
In response to these concerns, Trump suggested that maybe Saudi Arabia should pay us to stay in Syria. “You know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re going to have to pay,” said Trump Tuesday, complaining that America gets “nothing out of” the trillions it spends in the Middle East.
Iraq also wants the US to stay in Syria and says it needs America’s help to secure its border with Syria. “We still suffer…still, to this day, we have insurgents or jihadists crossing the border into Iraq and wreaking havoc,” said Iraqi Ambassador to the US Fareed Yasseen. “For the foreseeable future, we need that help.”
Another Iraqi official, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, worries that US withdrawal would affect the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq. “I know many Americans are sick and tired of the whole story of Iraq and Afghanistan, and soon they’ll be tired of Syria, but we need you. We need you to stay the course in Iraq and to help our society to recover from the most recent trauma that we’ve faced.”
Trump’s top commander for the Middle East, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, is also against the idea of withdrawal. “A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us,” he said during a speech Tuesday in Washington. Upcoming tasks for the troops in Syria will include “stabilizing” the country, “consolidating gains,” and “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction” following the defeat of ISIS.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis joined Votel in urging Trump to keep troops in Syria, insisting that we must stay there in order to help the nation recover from the conflict and achieve a new political future.
Author’s Note: Syria has been a puppet of Russia for a long time. It was starting to become a regional power before succumbing to civil war and the fight against ISIS, but is no longer.
I think Trump is right in wanting to pull out of Syria. President Obama’s Syria policy was so screwed up that we essentially had no policy and it was unclear why American troops were even there. Perhaps it is better for us to let others clean up the mess, and by doing so, to strengthen our fragile relationship with Russia.