One of Donald J. Trump’s campaign promises was to “knock the hell out of ISIS.” But before the group was entirely eliminated, the president suddenly decided to bring troops in Syria back home.
The ill-advised decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria against the advice of top national security figures has justifiably alarmed the Pentagon. In protest, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned on Thursday, ending an uneasy working relationship with President Trump that has turned toxic in the past couple of months. Leading Republican lawmakers, as well as former defense officials, are imploring the president to reverse his decision, arguing that the pullout of around 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria would embolden Iran and Russia.
First, let’s get one thing straight: the U.S. didn’t have a clear strategy in Syria to begin with. It never had. It is not like Washington had a well-thought plan and the president undermined it by withdrawing troops. But he made the bad situation worse. Apart from sending negative signals to countries like Iran and Russia (Trump tweeted that the U.S. is not a policeman of the Middle East), he also abandoned other coalition allies and local partners on the ground.
It is not surprising that President Trump would make such a hasty and impulsive decision in national security matters as consequential as this. Although it runs in contrast to his promise to grant more authority to the Pentagon, the latest drama is a stark reminder that he is willing to call shots by himself despite overwhelming protest. The fact that he made the decision without consulting with relevant Cabinet members, top figures at the Pentagon and without notifying allies is troubling. The abrupt departure of Jim Mattis, so-called the “adult in the room,” further terrified top GOP lawmakers.
Hardly can anyone make sense out of the president’s sudden decision to pull troops out of Syria. He argues that the reason is the defeat of ISIS, a claim that had never been voiced by national security officials before.
It could be related to spiraling government spending. President Trump is now considering taking measures to rein in growing government spending, a reality he woke up to only a month ago. He is planning to cut over $16 billion from the defense spending and he is weighing to slash budgets of other agencies. It is possible that his intention to withdraw troops from Syria was to save money. It is also possible his decision was made easier because NATO ally Turkey promised to do what the U.S. was there for: defeating ISIS and containing Russian and Iranian influence. If this is the case, it is an astonishing naivete to rely on Turkey to do U.S. bidding.
It is all but obvious that President Trump won’t reverse his decision on Syria. Without U.S. presence, it is an open season for Kurds. Russia and Iran would likely won’t allow ISIS to rear its head again. But there is no reason why Turkey won’t continue invading other Kurdish-held towns in northern Syria.
If this is about money, the Pentagon should devise another less-costly strategy to check Russia and Iran in Syria, build a robust autonomous region controlled by Kurds and help allies like France and U.K. to undertake a broader role.