U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the signed bill H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg)

Trump’s Syria Pullout Is a Grave Mistake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it plans to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. This is a mistake with potentially very serious consequences.

The fight against Islamic State isn’t over, contrary to Trump’s tweet on Wednesday saying that the U.S. had “defeated” it. To be sure, the self-proclaimed caliphate has suffered enormous losses at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition and its allies on the ground, but it holds several villages near the city of Hajin on the Syria-Iraq border. If allowed to, many of these could slip into Iraq and regroup. Islamic State is also reportedly making a comeback in parts of Iraq.

Relatively few U.S. troops are engaged, but they’re vital to the Kurdish forces that are leading the fight — providing tactical guidance, communications, airstrikes and artillery support. (Supposedly barred from offensive combat, they’ve also reportedly carried out raids on key targets.) And the decision comes days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told President Trump that his troops would launch an offensive against the Kurdish fighters, insisting they’re linked to a terrorist group.

A Turkish invasion could put NATO allies in conflict — especially if Americans were killed. The White House should be saying no to this plan, using its considerable leverage (since Turkey depends on the U.S. for security, and needs aid and investment to support its struggling economy). Instead, Trump seems ready to leave America’s best ally in the fight against Islamic State at the mercy of Erdogan, and of Syrian forces backed by Russian and Iranian military power.

That’s bad enough, and the longer-term consequences are no better. America’s most valuable geopolitical asset is its web of friends and allies, which Trump has seemed intent on destroying. Hanging a partner out to dry — even if that partner is a ragtag group of rebel fighters with no nation of their own — would bring this self-wounding approach to a new low. With France and Germany talking of forming a European army, Japan and South Korea reportedly considering developing nuclear weapons, and China forging economic and military ties around the globe, it’s a bad time to be underlining the message, America will let you down. 

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said that the military should maintain its presence until ISIS is eradicated and a Syrian peace agreement is negotiated. Trump, on top of everything else, is blithely casting that advice aside — which is of a piece with his erratic pronouncements on slashing, or maybe increasing, the Defense Department’s budget, on pulling out of Afghanistan and even NATO, on deploying troops at the Mexican border, and with thoughtless petty insults such as skipping Veterans Day ceremonies marking the centenary of the end of World War I.

In military and foreign affairs, no less than in politics, seemingly small choices can have expansive implications. Trump should reverse his decision on Syria.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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