Trump's Syria Pullout Fuels Confusion With Kurds Left in Lurch
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump declared victory over Islamic State and ordered a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria in a sharp reversal of American policy that appeared to take the Pentagon by surprise and leave America’s Kurdish allies in the lurch.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump said Wednesday morning on Twitter.
The announcement left key details unanswered -- such as a timetable for withdrawal, whether all troops would be pulled out and whether airstrikes would continue. The decision drew bipartisan criticism from U.S. lawmakers who said it leaves Syria’s future in the hands of Moscow and Tehran, allies of President Bashar al-Assad whose intervention in the conflict averted his potential defeat in a conflict that started more than seven years ago.
“This is chaos,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who said earlier on Twitter that the move would be a “boost to ISIS” and a “huge Obama-like mistake.” Graham, who has served as a key adviser to Trump and plays golf with him frequently, said he’d be meeting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis later in the day to understand the situation.
Mattis discussed the potential withdrawal with Trump a week ago, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to say how the defense chief reacted.
In a video posted on Twitter later Wednesday, Trump said, “I get very saddened when I have to write letters or call parents or wives or husbands of soldiers who have been killed fighting for our country. It’s a great honor. We cherish them. But it’s heartbreaking,” Trump said. “Now we’ve won. It’s time to come back.”
Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has closely advised the Trump administration on Iran policy, said that “pulling U.S. troops out of Syria would be a gift to Putin and to the mullahs in Tehran. And it would be a disastrous gift for the region.”
The U.S. military is working to carry out Trump’s order quickly, according to one official with knowledge of the plan. But it wasn’t clear what the president’s decision would mean for vulnerable Kurdish allies. Turkey -- a NATO ally -- views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crush them.
Trump’s order was met with silence in Ankara, where the foreign ministry and Erdogan’s office refrained from making any immediate public comments on the news. Turkish officials expressed caution as the details of the U.S. plan remained unclear.
In a White House statement after Trump’s tweet, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said America has “started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” although she didn’t comment on the pace of that withdrawal. “The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary,” she added.
As recently as Tuesday, administration officials disputed the idea that Islamic State is defeated and suggested U.S. involvement would continue.
“If we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave,” Brett McGurk, the administration’s special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, said on Dec. 11. “You have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those gains, security gains, are enduring. So that will take some time.”
But Trump has long pressed the military to withdraw from Syria, saying in April that he would make a decision “very quickly.”
“I want to get out, I want to bring the troops back home, I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said at a news conference at the time. He added that “our primary mission” of fighting the Islamic State terrorist group is “almost completed.”
Even after Trump’s announcement, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said “the campaign against ISIS is not over.” But she offered little insight on the withdrawal, saying in a statement that largely repeated White House talking points that “for force protection and operational security reasons we will not provide further details.”
Contrasting with the president’s declaration of victory, it was less than two weeks ago that Mattis said “there’s more work to be done” in Syria.
Referring to veteran Islamic State fighters still holding out in the Syrian conflict, Mattis said, “That hardened core means tough fighting there plus the potential for it to try to become more influential worldwide. Influential meaning inspiring attacks by surrogates, by those who’ve pledged allegiance to them.”
Behind the scenes, Israel has supported a continuing U.S. presence, arguing that it helps counter pro-Iranian forces such as Hezbollah. Publicly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supportive, saying on Wednesday that he was informed of the decision by Trump on Monday.
“The American administration told me that it is the president’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “They made it clear that they have other ways of expressing their influence in the area. In any case we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area.”
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the U.S. plan appears to have resulted at least in part from recent talks between Trump and Erdogan. The developments followed the U.S. State Department’s decision late on Tuesday to support the sale of a American missile defense system to Turkey -- an effort that had been held up by Ankara’s decision to buy a competing Russian system.
“The question is, is there a larger deal as a part of this - and what is it?” Tabler said. He cautioned that Islamic State is “not done" and said that a quick withdrawal could risk allowing the terror group to rebuild. "Who keeps ISIS down?"
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.