- - Thursday, December 20, 2018

Time is up and President Trump is withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. forces from Syria.

It’s no secret the president has wanted to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and that his advisers had persuaded him to wait.

But as time went on and the United States and its partners demolished the ISIS caliphate, and with a political solution remaining unattainable in the near term, the president’s patience evaporated.

It’s true that there are other ways to effect positive outcomes in Syria using economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, as the Trump administration has stated it is committed to doing. But it will be much harder without the influence earned by an effective military presence.

When, exactly, that military presence will leave is unknown. “You’ll hear different timelines bandied about. I’d just say take them with a grain of salt,” a senior administration told me. Whether it’s this month or next, there are risks of enormous consequence that come with withdrawal that no question the president’s advisers warned him of, but the president did not find persuasive.

Here are just three.

First, despite wiping out most of the 100,000 ISIS fighters, more than 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria and could reestablish the caliphate. While some are still visibly fighting, many remain and are hiding in communities; they will be back. The hope is that the coalition the United States trained will be able to continue the fight and keep ISIS from reestablishing. History of their having success in this without U.S. help is not good, but nonetheless, it will primarily be their responsibility, not ours.

Second, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to attack the Kurds, the very people who have partnered with the United States, who have suffered enormous casualties in the war against ISIS, and their fate hangs in the balance.

The SDF is a coalition of local Arab and Kurdish forces and led by Kurdish militia called the YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. When I asked about the fate of our Kurdish partners a senior U.S. official told me that the United States “appreciates that the U.S. is indebted to the Kurds” for what they have done in Syria. But assurances of appreciation won’t keep our Kurdish friends from slaughter.

President Trump has rightly elevated the need for U.S. allies and partners to behave like allies and partners if they want benefits that only the United States can provide. The Kurds have been model partners. The United States should demonstrate to the world what that gets you — and we cannot afford the answer to be abandonment.

Moreover, without an empowered, not defanged and definitely not eliminated, YPG-led coalition, the United States will be, by default, leaving the anti-ISIS campaign to Bashar Assad and his cache of chemical weapons and barrel bombs.

Third, Iran stands to benefit for its investment in keeping the Syrian Civil War prolonged and President Assad in power, and its activities in Syria will only expand once the United States leaves. Syria was a strategic ally of Iran long before the civil war broke out in 2014, but Iran has been exploiting the civil war by working toward establishing a contiguous land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea.

Obviously, this is not something Israel has tolerated. As Foundation for Defense of Democracies scholars penned this summer, ” Israel seeks to prevent Iran from turning Syria into an active front, similar to what it has faced with Hezbollah in Lebanon since the 1980s.” If the United States leaves Syria now, the danger to Israel dramatically elevates.

But here is something more people in the national security expert community should grapple with: Despite the risks of a sudden and premature withdrawal, Mr. Trump likely will not face political blowback. This is because the U.S. engagement in Syria is overwhelmingly unpopular with the American people.

The Authorizations to Use Military Force (AUMF) that President Bush sought and received from the Congress in 2001 and 2002 to go after Islamist militants responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 simply does not apply to the U.S. mission in Syria and elsewhere.

If the United States was going to keep a military presence in Syria longer, it would have been wise for the White House to seek an AUMF from Congress. This did not happen in part because despite condemnations from some Congressmen and Senators about the president’s decision to withdraw, Congress couldn’t deliver an AUMF.

And so, even if staying in Syria longer with the objective to secure an environment more conducive to a lasting peace is the right policy decision, the American people don’t buy it, and ultimately, it’s up to them. It was up to the president to work to persuade them of the worthiness of the mission or leave. He made his choice.

• Rebeccah L. Heinrichs is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, a contributing editor at Providence Magazine, and an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics. Views expressed here are her own.

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