- - Sunday, December 23, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Defense Secretary James Mattis was right to resign. President Trump is hard to help. When your enemies tell you that you are screwing up, chances are that at least some of what you are doing is right. When your friends tell you are screwing up, it may be a good time to at least re-evaluate your plan. But when everyone tells you that you’re screwing up, you are probably really screwing up. Mr. Trump is in danger of thoroughly screwing up in withdrawing our troops from northeastern Syria. He should re-evaluate his decision.

Mr. Trump’s Democratic Party enemies in Congress jumped on his announcement immediately as did The Washington Post, but so did many of his erstwhile Republican allies. He is also going against the recommendations of his secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and his senior military advisers as well as the majority of Middle East experts in the national security community.

The irony here is that — in cutting and running from Syria — the president is doing in Syria the same thing that he successfully criticized President Obama for doing in Iraq. The Democrats will have a field day with it in 2020. There is absolutely nothing to be gained politically by the Syrian withdrawal. This is a self-inflicted wound.

There is no politically meaningful domestic opposition to our limited Syrian involvement. There are no teach-ins, violent demonstrations at the Pentagon or hoards of military-age males heading for the Canadian border to avoid service. More Americans will have died in traffic accidents in a single day over the holiday season this year than have died or would die in our entire Syrian involvement. A large two-week field exercise by Marines or soldiers in the California desert will cost about as much as is spent in the same period of time supporting the few troops that we have in Syria.

The only people applauding the Syrian withdrawal are the Syrian government, the Iranians and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. At a time when he is being investigated for colluding with Moscow, the last thing Mr. Trump needs is to hand the Russians a foreign policy victory with no corresponding quid pro quo for us.

The American presence in the remote backwater of northeastern Syria has served three very important purposes. First, it prevents the 2,000 or so survivors of ISIS who once ruled the area from regrouping in the political vacuum that allowed them to gain power in the first place.

Second, an American presence acts as buffer against a conflict between two American allies — the Turks and the Kurds. The conflict between Turkey and various Kurdish groups who are fighting the Assad regime and Kurdish factional infighting is too byzantine to explain in a short op-ed piece, but suffice to say that no good will comes of having our allies at each other’s throats in an already complicated combat zone.

Finally, Syrian presence allows the United States a seat at the table in any future Syrian peace negotiations.

There is also a humanitarian argument for a continued American presence. A number of humanitarian non-governmental organizations operating in northeastern Syria would be at risk if and when the Americans leave. Mercy Corps has already announced that is re-examining its presence in light of Mr. Trump’s announcement. The president would be better advised to diplomatically work toward a multinational or U.N. force to fill the power vacuum in northeastern Syria.

Of all the reasons discussed above, the best argument for a continued American presence in Syria is as a hedge against a return of ISIS. A power vacuum is like having molding food under a refrigerator; it attracts vermin. In 2010 — as a senior governance adviser in the Abu Ghraib district of Iraq — I was out on a patrol with my security detail and ran into an individual who was reported to be the al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) shadow governor of the district.

Neither we nor the Iraqi government had sufficient evidence to arrest him. The AQI power structure had been thoroughly degraded, but he was confident enough to speak of his organization in the third person. “Someday, you will be gone and AQI will still be here. Without your influence, the Shiite government will lose interest in this region, and AQI will govern again.”

By 2014, both he and AQI were back, this time in the guise of ISIS. Its caliphate covered much of Iraq and northern Syria. If my acquaintance is still alive, he is probably again biding his time. Without a dedicated cleaning crew, the mold under the refrigerator will regrow and the roaches will return.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who was a U.N. observer the Middle East and a Department of State governance adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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