These days Islamic State has about 1 percent of its former territory, but the group’s poisonous ideology remains intact, as does a vacuum of power in war-torn Syria.
One of America’s partners in the Middle East fight against terror and chaos does a lot of dirty, dangerous work for little acclaim: the Syrian Kurds. Their militias battled Islamic State on the ground as the U.S. pounded away mainly from the air. The Syrian Kurds are still on the ground, but they’ve also been left high and dry by President Donald Trump.
Trump on Wednesday, with little apparent thought to the consequences, announced he will recall all 2,000 American troops from Syria, making his own declaration of “mission accomplished” over Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being during the Trump Presidency,” he tweeted. Good satisfying tweet, but dead wrong and bad policy.
Islamic State, a ragtag army of extremists, stunned Iraq and the United States five years ago by expanding quickly and waging sharp, sudden attacks in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. For a while the group gobbled territory, enslaved populated areas and even knocked Iraq’s army on its heels. The tide eventually turned, thanks in part to the Syrian Kurds, who were key to pushing Islamic State out of its putative capital, Raqaa, Syria.
These days Islamic State has about 1 percent of its former territory, but the group’s poisonous ideology remains intact, as does a vacuum of power in war-torn Syria. Cancers of all types can recur: Bashar Assad is still the barbarous leader of Syria, while Russia and Iran are still playing destabilizing games. This is no time to up and leave. On Dec. 11, U.S. envoy to the region Brett McGurk said: “I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of (Islamic State), until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.”
Trump decided otherwise, going with his gut it seems, in defiance of members of his own administration and party. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said evacuating Syria would be a huge mistake and morale boost to Islamic State. Trump offered no compelling argument or replacement strategy to protect American interests going forward. He told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he didn’t want to spend any more money and time in Syria.
This was great news to Erdogan, because he views Kurds as enemies and terrorists bent on carving out an independent state on Turkish soil. With U.S. forces out of the area, Turkey would be free attack the Kurds in Syria.
Erdogan’s isn’t the only happy face. Also pleased with Trump’s decision: Assad, who gets some breathing room; Iran, which uses Syria as a conduit to deliver arms to Hezbollah, an Israeli foe in Lebanon; and Russia, which built up a military presence in Syria to project power in the Middle East. The less U.S. activity on the ground in Syria, the greater the instability.
Trump has a bad habit of separating pronouncements from facts. A rash decision to bring home American forces looks good on his Twitter feed, but it’s dangerous in reality.
— CHICAGO TRIBUNE