We all want America to win, most certainly when we are talking about the United States military and its efforts to shatter ISIS, an Islamic terrorist group that vows to destroy us first. Yet President Donald Trump’s tweet on Wednesday that said, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” followed by the hazy plan about withdrawing all 2,000 U.S. troops from there, was condemned by almost everybody who knows anything in Washington.
Republicans are among the vociferous critics who say it would be unwise to erase the only on-the-ground leverage that America has had in the Syrian civil war, ceding all influence to Iran and Russia while blatantly abandoning the Kurds who are tremendous allies against the Islamic State group.
Not surprisingly, a day after Trump’s withdrawal decision, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly applauded it — a sign of who will benefit when America turns tail.
On this issue, Congress has a bipartisan consensus, and Democrats add that the abrupt manner in which Trump made the decision to withdraw signals yet another effort to distract from the investigations led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
One should not be too quick to assume that all decisions are linked to Mueller’s probe into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential race. So, unrelated to any scandal, we can assess whether the decision to get out of Syria is a simple mistake rooted in Trump’s gut instincts.
No one can be accused of mistaking Trump for an expert on foreign affairs, military strategy, or Middle East history. But his gut got him elected in 2016, and he will continue to let it propel him. A White House official who offered a background briefing to reporters about the Syria decision called it “a presidential prerogative,” without much of an effort to explain the plusses and minuses that Trump may have weighed.
Indeed, the president of the United States has the right to bring troops home. Usually that would be a welcome announcement at Christmastime.
But bitter history in the Middle East suggests that when beneficent conquerors leave a territory that used to be held by terrorists, the bad guys come back and fill the vacuum. These are very bad guys, the worst imaginable, who reigned over large swaths of Syria and Iraq with pre-civilization brutality: slavery, rapes, beheadings, and a totally intolerant religious dictatorship. They played host to bomb-makers, training camps, and psychopaths who kept planning terrorist attacks to carry out in France, Belgium, Britain, and even the United States.
Pentagon analysts admit privately that ISIS has not been defeated. Since America’s special forces arrived in Syria — sent there by President Barack Obama starting in 2015 — wonderful progress has been made. More than 95 percent of the territory the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria held as its “caliphate” has been liberated. Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed. Yet the Defense Department estimates that up to 20,000 ISIS men are not yet disarmed or dead.
Turkey has apparently told Trump that it will have troops in Syria to look out for the interests of America and the NATO alliance. Yet Turkey’s real interest is to suppress Kurdish nationalism.
It is clear that Russia, which moved into Syria to prop up the Bashar Assad regime that was weakened by the civil war that erupted in 2011, is a big winner. Iran, which is Assad’s chief ally and uses Syrian territory to move weapons to Israel’s enemies in neighboring Lebanon, is also scoring a victory.
But the United States, despite Trump’s boast that “we have won,” has not. If ISIS rises again, shakes off the dust, and re-energizes global terrorism, then we will regret the president’s hasty decision.
Dan Raviv is senior Washington correspondent of i24News and co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon.”