Trump Says Mission Accomplished in Syria. His Allies Disagree
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s claim that Islamic State has been defeated came as a surprise to those fighting alongside the U.S. military in Syria.
In London, Paris and Berlin, leaders were “flabbergasted” as they discovered that their top partner in combating Islamic State was hastily pulling its troops out of Syria, according to a senior European diplomat.
Islamic State “is not wiped off the map,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said on Twitter, while Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the “abrupt change of course of the American side” could “hurt the fight against IS and reverse the achieved successes.”
At the United Nations on Thursday, U.K. Ambassador Karen Pierce said that British planes had carried out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria in the last 24 hours.
“We must not lose sight of the threat Daesh continues to pose,’’ Pierce said, using another term used to identify Islamic State, even as she acknowledged the group has lost most of its physical territory.
Since the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, European powers have stepped up their support for a U.S.-led effort to defeat ISIS in Syria, alarmed by the security threats posed by the group to its citizens and eager to stem a flow of refugees that has upended politics across the continent.
France is believed to have at least a few hundred special forces on the ground in Syria while Germany, traditionally reluctant to exercise its military power, has sent more than 1,000 troops.
Those efforts have paid off as the group’s territory has shrunk an estimated 99 percent. But Trump’s decision to withdraw could remove a safety-valve that’s prevented other conflicts from escalating: between Turkey and Kurdish forces, for example, or the Russia-Iran-Syria alliance and remaining rebel groups in the regions where American troops are now stationed.
That’s one reason for Europe’s concern: while the U.S. is separated from the Middle East by more than 6,000 miles, renewed instability in Syria could spark a fresh wave of refugees pouring into Europe.
And while European leaders have grown accustomed to Trump’s unpredictability, a key focus in bilateral conversations now is how to delay the timetable of U.S. troop withdrawal as much as possible, a diplomat said.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo sought to play down concerns that Trump’s abrupt announcement may have been premature, arguing that the fight against Islamic State continues “in lots of pockets around the world.”
“The primary mission was to go take down the ISIS caliphate,” Pompeo said on the Laura Ingraham Show on Thursday morning. “That is at the very tail end of completion. And we have ISIS remnants in lots of pockets around the world.”
Trump’s decision wasn’t completely unexpected, as he had long warned that he wanted out of Syria. But European leaders had been fiercely lobbying to buy time, with Emmanuel Macron saying as recently as in April that he had “convinced” Trump to stay in Syria and commit to the “long term.”
Now the French president and his fellow European leaders will have to figure out how to manage their Syrian problem without American ground support.
“There was considerable doubt about Trump’s staying in power in Syria,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But Europeans had been trying to buy as much time as possible.”
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