- - Wednesday, January 2, 2019


With American troops and military installations spread on all continents, the importance of a mere 2,000 troops in Syria would seem Lilliputian. But from world media over the past few days, you might think it’s as crucial as the withdrawal from Saigon in the previous century.

President Trump announced just before Christmas that American forces would be leaving Syria, apparently immediately, as if in celebration of the utter defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or the local caliphate. The caliphate was founded with the capital at Raqqa, in northern Syria. But with the defeat of the usurpers and their territory largely lost, the American strategy no longer demanded U.S. forces on the ground. U.S. troops in northern Iraq — who had been with withdrawn earlier under President Obama and then returned later for duty — were thought to be able to handle any situation.

Mr. Trump gave American forces 30 days to leave Syria. The Kurds, who had done most of the fighting with the Americans, appealed to the Syrian government for help in securing a key northern city, Manbij, to guard against any Turkish offensive. In the checkerboard of ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East, the Kurds in Turkey, with no history of a state of their own but spread throughout the region, and with about 14 million out of a population of 77.8 million Turks, have supported an armed demand for more autonomy or independence since the 1960s.

Syrian government forces could be seen taking up arms inside northern Syria late last month, but later pulled out “in order to avoid any frictions” with American forces in their alliance with Kurds. The defeat of ISIS (the other name for the Islamic State) signaled fundamental weaknesses. First, ISIS needed continual conquest to succeed. Winning would be taken as a clear sign that the ultra-radical Islamic State was doing God’s work. But once it occupied Sunni-dominated heartlands, further expansion became unlikely. It was relatively easy to sweep aside border debris of a shattered state such as Syria, but inflicting persuasive pain on stronger states, such as Turkey, Israel and Jordan, would not be easy. There was no way that the Islamic State, or ISIS, could fight its way deep into Shia-dominated central and southern Iraq.

Violent intolerance of dissent and brutality was one reason for the rapid expansion Sunni tribal leaders could see as justifying accepting radical Islamic authority. But after 2015, with a weakened Islamic State unable to offer anything other than violence, defections began and the number rapidly grew. The old yearning to restore the military, political and technological superiority over the West by Islamic powers of a millennium ago — or the conviction that the end time was near — was insufficient to persuade other Islamic communities to fight and die for ISIS. In the end, for example, the hospital and stadium in Raqqa were defended by foreign ISIS fighters. Syrian militants had surrendered days before.

In his earlier withdrawal announcement, President Trump declared the Islamic State as defeated, but in a dramatic reversal, he later said U.S. troops would now be pulled out “slowly” and that they would be fighting the remnants of ISIS still on the field. He had taken severe criticism by American military figures, and even some Republican congressional leaders for the earlier unrealistic withdrawal statements. The military and congressional critics argued that the president refuses to see the continuing threat of radical Islam, which they compare to the long and eventually successful Cold War struggle to defeat the old Soviet Union.

U.S. ground troops first became involved in Syria in autumn 2015, when President Obama dispatched a small number of Special Forces to train and advise Kurdish fighters. The United States did this reluctantly after several attempts at arming anti-ISIS groups failed. Over intervening years the number of U.S. troops in Syria grew, and a network of bases and airstrips were established in an arc across the northeast. These were part of an international coalition conducting air strikes against ISIS, while targeting Syrian government bases in retaliation for suspected war crimes with horrific chemical weapons.

President Trump’s withdrawal statement shocked U.S. allies and American defense officials alike. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, a top U.S. official in the fight against the Islamic State, followed soon after. The importance of those 2,000 American soldiers in Syria became clear soon enough.  


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