American policy on Syria took a U-turn Wednesday with the news that President Donald Trump was preparing for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Syrian civil war. After the news broke, Trump took to Twitter to declare, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”
Trump is right to accept victory in Syria. By September, ISIS had lost 99 percent of the territory its vaunted caliphate once held, according to a Pentagon Inspector General’s report. With the last vestiges of Islamic State territory in Syria falling to U.S.-backed forces in recent days, the goal that drew the U.S. into Syria is achieved.
This decision will upset most of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which generally supports a more expansive war in Syria. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, generally a Trump ally, called it an “Obama-like mistake” and a “big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad…and Russia.” Scholars from the Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for a New American Security and other prominent think tanks all echoed that sentiment.
Read more commentary:
Until this week, the Trump administration took a similar view. Even though the president said last spring that U.S. forces would be leaving Syria “very soon,” administration officials in September announced that he had decided to keep troops there indefinitely to ensure ISIS’s “enduring defeat,” compel the withdrawal of Iranian forces, and shape the post-war order. That last goal seemingly included protecting the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish militia that did most of ground fighting against ISIS, from Turkey.
Trump’s decision is a good one, even though it reflects poorly on his administration’s security decision-making process. With the defeat of ISIS, the risks of keeping U.S. troops in Syria badly outweigh any potential benefits. The rationales that administration officials recently offered for staying are really reasons to go.
No one knows exactly how an “enduring” defeat of ISIS differs from plain old defeat. That’s the point, presumably. Ensuring ISIS’s total extinction is a useful goal for keeping troops there forever, adding more, and adopting all manner of nation-building goals.
The idea that U.S. forces can compel Iran’s eviction makes little sense. Like Russia, Iran has long-standing interests in Syria that are stronger than ours, was invited by the regime to deploy forces, and is unlikely to pull them before the civil war is over. Leaving rivals the draining task of trying to stabilize Syria is hardly doing them a favor. Syria offers occupiers nothing that can vault them to greater power and lots of potential trouble. Keeping U.S. forces there until Iran decides to leave simply offers them the right to say how long we incur costs.
Nothing justifies the risks of staying in Syria
Chasing those nebulous benefits means running a massive risk of escalation, with the Assad regime, Russia, Iran or NATO-ally Turkey. U.S. forces protecting Kurdish allies have engaged in tense stand-offs with Turkish forces in northern Syria. Israel attacks on Iranian-backed forces in Syria risk wider war that could embroil U.S. forces.
Most worrying, given the nuclear stakes, is the potential for inadvertent war with Russia. In February, U.S. commandos and airstrikes killed scores of Russian “mercenaries” in a prolonged battle. Ambassador James Jeffrey later remarked of the incident that “this has occurred about a dozen times in one place or another in Syria,” and “there have been various engagements [with the Russians in Syria], some involving exchange of fire, some not.” This revelation somehow did not set off alarm bells in Congress, which never authorized the war in Syria, let alone conducted serious oversight of it.
The United State has nothing approaching the tremendous stakes needed to justify running these risks. This calculation should not turn on what one thinks of Russia’s actions in Europe or its relations with Donald Trump. The same goes for Iran. If you want to punish rivals for actions elsewhere, find a better way to do it than using 2,000 troops to manage the end of the Syrian civil war so that they do not do it for you.
US job was to defeat ISIS, not protect Kurds
The idea that we should stay to shape the post-war order has only slightly more merit. Washington long clung to chimerical idea that its support for relatively weak forces opposing Assad would bring about a regime change, which would install rulers with less blood on their hands. But there was no liberal alternative in Syria to Assad or continued war. That is doubly true now that Assad’s forces have retaken much of the country and boxed the rebels into the northwest. The Kurds are negotiating post-war terms with the Assad regime, and dire circumstances are forcing non-jihadist rebels to do the same.
The U.S. can push for an acceptable arrangement between the Turks, Assad and the Kurds, and try to help rebels it backed in the Syrian Democratic Forces cut deals to return home or emigrate. But U.S. leverage is inevitably limited by the lack of strong U.S. interests. Keeping a fairly small number of troops there does not change that. The hard truth is that U.S. allies in Syria, including the Kurds, should know that U.S. forces were in Syria to defeat ISIS, not to guarantee their autonomy. We do not owe them indefinite protection.
The demise of ISIS means there is nothing left worth fighting to win there. The risks of blundering into a war with a rival power are profound, and no possible benefit justifies them. We should not pay the costs of managing the end game of Syria’s civil war so that Russia and Iran do not. The Assad regime is winning its civil war, and supporting rebels merely prolongs the fighting and its tragic consequences. The United States is not obligated to fight for the Kurds or anyone else there. The decision to pull troops is the right one, however one feels about the messenger and process that produced it.
Benjamin H. Friedman is Policy Director at Defense Priorities. Justin Logan is Director of Programs and Research Associate and the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University. Follow Justin on Twitter: @JustinTLogan
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump is right to withdraw US troops from Syria. We've done our job by defeating ISIS.