- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2018

President Trump on Wednesday abruptly declared victory over the Islamic State in Syria and said the 2,000 U.S. troops deployed there will come home, fulfilling a major campaign promise but sparking fear abroad and bipartisan outrage at home — all while doing little to clear up America’s regional mission or the fate of its allies in the war-torn terrorist hotbed.

The unexpected move upends years of U.S. policy in Syria and carries with it serious geopolitical consequences. Skeptics warn that it opens the door for Iran and Russia to seize even more power in the region, or for the Islamic State to reconstitute itself.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump posted a video on Twitter reiterating his belief that America has defeated its foe. He praised the U.S. military and called the men and women who fought in Syria “great heroes of the world.”

“We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly,” the president 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. But it’s heartbreaking.

“Now we’ve won,” Mr. Trump continued. “It’s time to come back. They’re getting ready. You’re going to see them soon.”

The move was even more stunning given that Mr. Trump’s recently appointed envoy to the Syrian conflict said just days ago that American special operations forces and military advisers were staying for the long term.

SEE ALSO: Vladimir Putin welcomes the U.S. decision to withdraw its military from Syria

The decision touched off a firestorm of opposition on both the left and the right. Critics likened it to President George W. Bush’s infamous “mission accomplished” claim on Iraq and President Barack Obama’s insistence in 2012 that extremist groups were “on the run” in the Middle East, two years before the Islamic State rose to dominate much of Iraq and Syria. Powerful Republican senators described Mr. Trump’s withdrawal as “Obama-like,” a “retreat” and a blunder that will “haunt this administration and America for years to come.”

“The [Obama] administration showed what happens when arbitrary political deadlines — rather than reality on the ground — dictate policy in war zones,” said retiring House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican. “We must learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.”

Although White House officials say it’s time for the U.S. to move to the next phase of its war against the Islamic State, military officials are much more cautious. They said Wednesday that the military campaign is not over and that much work remains to fully eradicate the terrorist group.

Other administration officials this month also seemed to warn against such a move. Brett McGurk, the administration’s point man for the international coalition against the Islamic State, said last week that it’s foolhardy to defeat the terrorist group’s “physical space and then leave.” He also said there is no firm date for a withdrawal from Syria.

White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton has said the U.S. military would remain in Syria as long as Iran-backed proxy groups are active there. That position apparently lost out to Mr. Trump’s desire for a quick withdrawal.

Obama-like retreat?

The president has frequently bashed open-ended American military quagmires in the Middle East, but foreign policy hawks in his party said the Syria withdrawal is naive and dangerous. Ultimately, they warned, the president will regret it.

“It will be an Obama-like mistake made by the Trump administration,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, a Trump ally who became a chief critic of the Obama administration’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

“While American patience in confronting radical Islam may wane, the radical Islamists’ passion to kill Americans and our allies never waivers,” he said. “An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, [Syrian dictator] Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia. I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, was equally harsh and suggested that the Pentagon was overruled by the White House.

“The president’s generals have no idea where this weak decision came from,” he said. “They believe the high-fiving winners today are Iran, ISIS, and Hezbollah. The losers are Israel, humanitarian victims, and U.S. intelligence-gathering. A lot of American allies will be slaughtered if this retreat is implemented.”

Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, a longtime critic of open-ended overseas military missions, was a rare supporter of Mr. Trump’s decision among Hill Republicans.

“For the first time in my lifetime, we have a president with the courage to declare victory and bring the troops home,” the Kentucky Republican said. “We haven’t had a president in 20 or 30 years who can figure out how to declare victory.”

Administration officials rejected the accusation that Mr. Trump’s top advisers were blindsided by the presidential tweet. They insisted that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been fully involved in the decision-making process, as has Mr. Bolton.

“The president’s statements on this topic have been 100 percent consistent,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call late Wednesday afternoon. “The notion that anyone in the administration was caught unaware, I would challenge that. I really don’t see this as a surprise.”

But it’s clear there was significant daylight between the Pentagon’s position and the president’s claims of total victory.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in recent weeks that the Islamic State controls just 1 percent of the territory it once held. He stressed, however, that the group remains a potent threat to the U.S. and its allies.

Defense Department assessments have warned that the organization is morphing into a more conventional terrorist group that still boasts tens of thousands of fighters in the region.

Publicly, Pentagon officials tried to walk a fine line between backing up Mr. Trump’s declaration while stressing that the fight isn’t over.

“The coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White. “We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.”

As Republicans bashed the decision, critics on the left mocked it. The left-wing group Think Progress circulated a piece Wednesday afternoon with the subject line “Mission accomplished,” a reference to Mr. Bush’s claim in May 2003 that the war in Iraq was won. U.S. troops would go on to fight a determined insurgency for years afterward, and the country eventually became the breeding ground for the Islamic State.

Administration officials couldn’t provide answers on how many troops have left Syria, or what the deadline will be for the evacuation. It’s also unclear whether some U.S. special operations forces could remain on the ground to conduct targeted missions.

“They’re working it right now,” an administration official said in reference to the Pentagon. “I don’t think we have those numbers. I know the process has begun.”

Mr. Obama first deployed U.S. forces into Syria to deal with the Islamic State threat, a campaign that gained significant momentum under Mr. Trump. The U.S. and its allies drove the terrorist group from its strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq. Mr. Trump also authorized direct military strikes on forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2017 after they were accused of using chemical weapons against anti-regime rebel positions.

On the ground

Mr. Trump made his announcement amid a fluid situation on the ground in Syria. The intense U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State, which began under Mr. Obama, has continued throughout the Trump tenure. From Dec. 9-15, the American-coalition conducted more than 200 strikes in Syria, according to the Pentagon.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces also are on the verge of capturing some of the final key areas held by the Islamic State east of the Euphrates River. A victory there would mark a painful blow against the terrorist group and would nearly complete the job of winning back all physical territory once controlled by the Islamic State.

But the fight against the terrorist group is just one piece of what has become a much more complicated situation. The yearslong civil war in Syria has devastated most of the country, and Mr. Assad has found willing allies in Russia and Iran in the fight to maintain power.

Turkey has been drawn into the fight as U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces grew increasingly powerful in Syria’s north. Israel has been drawn into the fight as Iranian advisers and Tehran-backed Hezbollah led the fight against Syrian rebel forces operating near the Golan Heights and the Israeli-Syrian border. Russia and Iran have inserted themselves in the conflict as key supporters of Mr. Assad, and Russian mercenaries have clashed with U.S. forces and their allies on Syria’s chaotic battlefield.

Some regional analysts warn that the withdrawal of U.S. troops could spark a domino effect throughout the broader Middle East. They warn that without the presence of American troops, the Syrian Democratic Forces — a Kurdish-Arab alliance that has been a key U.S. partner in fighting the Islamic State and Mr. Assad’s army — could be overrun. The fallout won’t be limited to the security side.

“Over 90 percent of Syria oil is in area controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. If Assad reconquers the country, Iran will no longer have to subsidize Assad’s oil needs, which will, in turn, undermine current U.S. sanction policy towards Iran,” said David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Most of the viable agrarian land is in area controlled by SDF. Given Assad’s food shortage, the agricultural land represents a critical economic and political variable.”

If Mr. Trump’s withdrawal is carried out, “the U.S.-trained and -equipped SDF will have little choice but to join the Iran-Russia-Assad axis,” Mr. Adesnik said.

But other analysts said withdrawing U.S. forces is the right move now. They argue that nothing is to be gained from an open-ended mission and that Washington would be committed to an endless task of balancing the region’s hostile powers.

“The goal that got U.S. forces into Syria is essentially achieved,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates a more restrained foreign policy.

“The fact that none of his top security advisers seem to agree with his decision suggests the president needs better security advice,” he said.

• Dave Boyer and Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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