At an event in Ohio on Thursday to drum up enthusiasm for his infrastructure plan, President Donald Trump said U.S. forces would be leaving Syria “very soon,” causing listeners both within and outside the government to wonder what on earth he was talking about.
“By the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” he said. “We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon — very soon we’re coming out. We are going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land, taking it all back, quickly, quickly. But we are going to be coming out of there real soon.”
He followed up that bold promise by repeating his beloved claim that the U.S. had already spent $7 trillion prosecuting its various wars in the Middle East, which is not even close to accurate, and adding that “if we kept the oil, we wouldn’t have ISIS” — because surely plundering Iraq’s most valuable resources would have engendered no ill will towards the U.S. and kept radical Islam at bay.
In a speech full of whoppers like these, there’s a good chance Trump was blowing smoke when he said we’d be leaving Syria soon, especially as this was just one of many bizarre non sequiturs with which he peppered his characteristically unfocused speech. After all, Trump is well-known to play fast and loose with facts when he gets into rally mode.
Nonetheless, what we have here is a statement from the president asserting some vague timeline for the withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. soldiers currently on the ground in Syria helping allied Syrian factions recapture territory from Islamic State militants, along with the civilian officials from the State Department working on stabilization efforts in these areas.
The statement came as news to the departments of Defense and State. A defense official told CNN that Trump’s statement contradicted military commanders’ assessment of the situation in Syria and their recommended course of action, while State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said she was not aware of any policy to withdraw U.S. forces.
A quick withdrawal from Syria is also at odds with what literally every relevant official has said on the matter in the recent past, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton, and both former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his designated replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Within the past two months, both the State Department and the Pentagon have indicated that the administration envisions keeping U.S. soldiers on the ground in Syria and Iraq indefinitely and furthermore, sees no need to ask Congress’s permission to do so.
Meanwhile, if Bolton’s fever dream of a full-on war with Iran comes true, Syria will doubtless be a theater in that war — as indeed it already has become for Iran and Israel.
The most likely scenario, therefore, is that Trump was making an idle boast and that he has since received calls from his advisers explaining to him that actually, no, we’re not leaving Syria soon and that it probably wasn’t a great idea to say we were. (It is hardly churlish to note that in doing so, Trump was contradicting his own dictum of never discussing his military plans in advance and doing the very thing for which he repeatedly lambasted President Barack Obama.)
Still, Trump is the Commander-in-Chief and if he orders the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, withdraw they shall. But if the president did indeed mean what he said, there are a couple of reasons why a speedy disengagement from Syria might not be in the best interests of the U.S., Syria, the Middle East, or the world.
Thus far in 2018, the U.S. role in Syria has become more complicated, not less, as the war itself has grown even bloodier and taken on new dimensions. Right now, Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran are close to driving the last rebel faction out of eastern Ghouta after a relentless campaign that has killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. Turkey, meanwhile, continues to press its campaign against Kurdish militias in the north, which has pitted a NATO ally against one of the U.S.’s most reliable Syrian partners in the fight against ISIS.
On top of the obvious risk of giving ISIS an opportunity to regroup, an abrupt American disengagement from Syria in the near future would leave the country at the mercy of everyone else who is still fighting over it. When Trump says he wants to “let the other people take care of it now,” the other people he is talking about are Bashar al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin — thuggish dictators united in their lack of regard for the lives and best interests of the Syrian people.
“Wars,” Machiavelli wrote, “begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.” This is a lesson successive U.S. governments have learned (or rather, failed to learn) the hard way in the greater Middle East over nearly two decades. Much as Obama discovered that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were much harder to end than they had been to start, Trump may soon find that our involvement in Syria, regardless of its merits, is not easily reversed.
The president would also do well to heed his own criticism of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq: Just because a foreign entanglement was ill-advised to begin with, that doesn’t mean it can be brought to an end at any time without making things even worse.