“We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close to total victory, to wiping out the ISIS caliphate in Syria,” a U.S. Special Forces officer in Syria told NBC News last week.
But President Donald Trump seems determined to turn over the ball on the goal line, setting up the geopolitical version of the 2015 Super Bowl that the Seattle Seahawks lost with a last-minute interception.
On Thursday, Trump said, “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” He then froze the paltry $200 million the United States had pledged to help rebuild areas liberated from the Islamic State.
If Trump follows through — always a big if with him — he will be reversing a decision he made late last year at the urging of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Staying in Syria appears to be another one of those moves — like not abandoning the Iran nuclear deal or not imposing tariffs — that was forced on Trump by his advisers and that he is reversing now that he has decided to stop listening to people who know what they are talking about. The “very stable genius” prefers to follow his own instincts — you know, the ones that led him into six corporate bankruptcies.
The Trump foreign policy can be characterized as violent isolationism. And, yes, it’s as incoherent as it sounds. His philosophy is: Bombs away, then bye-bye. The United States has dropped a lot of munitions in Syria - mostly on the Islamic State but also, a year ago, on one of Bashar al-Assad’s airfields. But Trump is as allergic to lasting obligations in foreign affairs as he is in his “Stormy” private life.
The problem is that the United States has almost never achieved its objectives without a prolonged intervention. The United States left Europe after World War I, and the result, 21 years later, was World War II. We stayed in Europe after 1945, and the result is unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Want more examples? The United States intervened in Somalia in 1992 and exited in 1994, leaving behind chaos that allowed the rise of the Islamist extremists known as al-Shabab. The United States helped to topple Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but did nothing to stabilize Libya afterward, allowing that country to become another playground for Islamist extremists. Washington is now trying to limit the damage by launching drone strikes against al-Qaida leaders in Libya.
Finally, Iraq. The George W. Bush administration did next to nothing to prepare for stabilization operations after Saddam Hussein’s downfall in 2003, creating the conditions for an insurgency that cost the United States 4,497 dead and 32,252 wounded. The 2007-2008 surge restored calm, but President Barack Obama’s pullout of U.S. forces in 2011 made possible the rise of the Islamic State. Republicans blasted Obama’s decision, yet are silent today when Trump looks set to make the same mistake in Syria.
Granted, some of these interventions were mistakes to begin with and should not have been continued in perpetuity. But the United States was right to send military advisers to Syria, and the stakes remain high even with the defeat of the Islamic State in sight.
Withdrawing the 2,000 or so U.S. troops might allow the Islamic State, which today controls less than 7 percent of Syria’s territory, to rise again. It would almost certainly allow Iran to gain control of eastern Syria, creating a land bridge from Tehran to Damascus and Beirut that would increase the danger to Israel. As Josh Rogin notes, instead of taking the terrorists’ oil, Trump appears ready to hand it to the mullahs.
Perhaps the most morally troubling consequence of a pullout — meaning that it will not trouble this president in the slightest — is that it would represent a betrayal of the Kurds and Arabs in the Syrian Democratic Forces who have fought alongside U.S. troops against the Islamic State. The SDF fighters are the most moderate and reliable allies that the United States has in Syria. “They trusted our first forces on the ground,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga told NBC, “and we trusted them.”
The right way to repay their trust is to help the SDF establish an autonomous zone in the one-third of Syria that it controls. This would protect at least a portion of Syrian territory from Russian and Iranian domination and give the United States a strong say in that country’s future.
But Trump seems determined to betray the SDF as the United States betrayed the South Vietnamese in the 1970s, the Afghans in the 1990s, and the Iraqis after 2011. How long before Trump starts reconsidering the commitment to Afghanistan that he only halfheartedly supported? And what will happen in Iraq if “Fox & Friends” informs Trump that the United States still has 5,000 troops there?
If the United States leaves both Syria and Iraq, it will be an incalculable windfall for Iran, a rogue state that Trump claims to hate — but not as much as he seems to hate long-term commitments.
Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”