By now, you have probably heard that the U.S. is withdrawing its troops from Syria. President Trump made this announcement in a Tweet on December 19th, when he declared: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” In some ways, this decision should come as no surprise and indeed accords with his world view. Trump has been a longtime critic of “national building.” He always said that the U.S. was in Syria to defeat Isis. And with the Caliphate in tatters, the strategic rationale for being there has ebbed. In other ways, though, his decision to remove the troops from Syria and its fallout reflect profound inconsistences. Below, I list the top five ironies of the Syria withdraw.
Irony 1 -- Trump Criticized Obama for Hastily Withdrawing from Iraq
Trump was unsparing in his criticism of President Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. When ISIS came to prominence a few years later, Trump joined the chorus of critics who said that the power vacuum in Iraq enabled Al Qaeda to revive and then metastasize into Islamic State. Now, the troop withdrawal from Syria risks creating another power vacuum for Salafi terrorists to exploit. Obama critics are thus leveling the same criticism against Trump. As David Adesnik and Andrew Gabel from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently wrote for Fox News, “Trump’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria…makes the same terrible mistake Obama made in withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011.” To temper this criticism, Trump has recently suggested that the troop withdrawal may be graduated. But any future signs of ISIS life in Syria will be pinned on Trump just as Obama bore the political costs of the terrorist revival in Iraq.
Irony 2 – Trump Campaigned as an Anti-Iran Hawk
Trump is typically regarded as an anti-Iran hawk. In his presidential campaign, he said “my number one priority” is to dismantle the nuclear deal of his predecessor. He then surrounded himself with other anti-Iran hawks from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Similarly, Trump has been the most “pro-Israel” president in U.S. history, as reflected in his decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his administration’s voting record in the UN. Understandably, pro-Israel groups are upset with Trump, as the U.S. troops in Syria were thought to curtail Iranian expansion in Syria. Without the Trump announcement, it would be hard to imagine him eliciting praise in Tehran and trepidation in Jerusalem. An irony of the Syria withdrawal is it comes from the most pro-Israel, anti-Iran president in U.S. history, while arguably hurting Israel and helping Iran.
Irony 3 – Critics of the Withdrawal Say It Didn’t Follow Protocol
Trump has been criticized not only for removing U.S. troops from Syria, but for how he’s doing it. According to reports, Trump was speaking with the Turkish president on December 14th about the U.S. presence in Syria. When Erdogan promised to fight ISIS there, Trump replied, “OK, it's all yours. We are done.” This ad hoc decision blindsided even his own military advisors, prompting Secretary of State James Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk to resign. The irony is that the U.S. troop presence in Syria also failed to follow protocol and was equally ad hoc. Congress never declared war on Syria. The post-9/11 “Authorization for Use of Military Force” was intended to fight terrorists even though ISIS has been on the wan in Syria. And the strategic rationale for staying in Syria has increasingly vacillated from combating ISIS to containing Iran to saving the Kurds to protecting Israel. Critics of the ad hoc withdrawal must acknowledge that the occupation itself also failed to follow protocol or even a consistent rationale for the deployment of U.S. troops. We seem to have moved from one flawed process to another.
Irony 4 – The Rebels Have Suddenly Switched from Friend to Foe
The most vocal advocates of the rebels in Syria since 2013 have also been the fiercest critics of the troop withdrawal. With few exceptions, the think tank consensus has been to support the rebels who were described for years as essential to combating ISIS and sparing the population from the Syrian Arab Army. Ironically, the same opinion-makers now say that the withdrawal is a bad idea because it will empower the rebels. In a remarkable reversal of their Syria analysis, the pundits now acknowledge that rebels aren’t interested in fighting ISIS and pose a major threat to the population. Instead of defending minorities in Syria, the rebels have induced the Kurds to side with the Syrian Arab Army against them for their own survival.
Irony 5 – ISIS Has Switched from Political Asset to Liability
During the presidential campaign, Trump benefited from ISIS. Political scientists have found that terrorism tends to reward hardliners who favor hawkish responses to terrorists. ISIS attacks from Paris to San Bernardino helped Trump to depict himself as a savior of the Western world under assault by “radical Islamist terrorists.” Trump justified the Syria withdrawal by declaring ISIS defeated. So, every ISIS attack will now be seized upon by his critics to politically bludgeon him. In a flash, ISIS terrorism has gone from a plus to a minus for his political fortunes. Ironically, Trump may live and die politically by ISIS.
Max Abrahms is a professor of political science at Northeastern and author of Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History.
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