War Stories

Trump Looks for an Exit in Syria

A hasty departure could make things worse.

Vehicles of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group patrol the town of Rmelane.
Vehicles of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group patrol the town of Rmelane in Syria’s Hasakeh province on June .
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump has apparently decided to declare victory in Syria and bring the troops home.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he tweeted Wednesday morning. This was shortly after several news agencies had quoted officials as saying that Trump was “considering“ (Reuters), “preparing“ (Wall Street Journal) or “planning“ (CNN) to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops from the war-torn country, perhaps “immediately“ (Washington Post).

It is worth noting, first of all, that ISIS is not defeated. True, the Islamic State has lost almost all of its once-large swath of territory, which it declared a “caliphate,” in Syria and Iraq. It’s also true that Trump can take some credit for this. President Obama began military operations against ISIS in 2014 with bombing, strafing, and support of local ground troops, mainly Kurds, to great effect. But Trump loosened the rules of engagement, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stepped up the bombing, and though more civilians were killed in the process, the caliphate was destroyed probably six months sooner than it would have been otherwise, according to senior U.S. officers.

However, contrary to Trump’s tweet, ISIS, as a terrorist organization and a military force, is very much alive. The Pentagon’s inspector general and the United Nations have recently estimated that ISIS still has 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, who regularly launch attacks on their foes. The group’s strength is also growing in Libya, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa.

Trump seems to have taken a page from the late Sen. George Aiken, who was widely (but somewhat misleadingly) quoted as saying in 1966, as the Vietnam War was heating up, that we should “declare victory and go home,” when in fact we hadn’t won at all.

President Lyndon Johnson would have been wise to take Aiken’s advice. He could have avoided another nine years of a futile war, saved the lives of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops (and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese), and prevented the splintering of the nation back home.

Would Trump be wise to follow up on his tweet? On the one hand, his sentiments are completely understandable. Syria has become a bloody jumble of overlapping wars—sectarian, civil, regional, big-power proxy—over which the United States has little influence. Tensions are tightly wound; rival troops, armored vehicles, and fighter jets maneuver in very close proximity to one another; U.S. personnel have found themselves suddenly surrounded by danger and, on more than one occasion, wrapped in combat. Maybe it’s best to get out before things get out of hand.

On the other hand, a withdrawal would probably make things worse. At least for now, the presence of U.S. troops, advisers, pilots, and so forth exerts a somewhat stabilizing force—helping to repel ISIS, check Iran, contain Russia, support the Kurds, and shore up the regime in Iraq. It would be better if Trump had the slightest interest in coupling this presence with diplomatic initiatives, but at least it’s something.

And unlike the war in Vietnam, this is hardly an unsustainable, or even politically unpopular, commitment. In 1966 alone, the year when Aiken made his pronouncement, more than 6,000 U.S. troops were killed in Vietnam, and the toll would soon rise. By contrast, four Americans have died throughout the four years of the U.S. intervention in Syria.*

Why is Trump tweeting about getting out now? One possibility lies in a phone conversation that Trump had on Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been threatening to launch a massive attack against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, along the Turkish border. Erdogan said after their talk that Trump had given him “positive answers” on that situation. Could one of the “positive answers” have been that Trump would soon pull out of the country, leaving the Kurds—who have long been the most effective fighters against ISIS—open to Turkish slaughter?

Trump may not actually follow through on this. The State Department, totally blindsided by Trump’s tweet, canceled its press conference on Wednesday, in order to avoid comment. Mattis will certainly press him to reconsider. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton may do so as well. During his first months in power, Trump was set to withdraw troops from Afghanistan—until Mattis and Bolton’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, talked him out of it. Then again, Mattis doesn’t wield the clout that he once did, Pompeo seems inclined to parrot whatever the boss says, and Bolton has leaned in or laid back on a variety of issues, depending on which bureaucratic game he’s playing at the moment.

One complicating factor is that the United States government has never figured out what its interests in Syria are. The Obama administration pursued a few interests, some of them contradictory: Defeat ISIS, contain Iran, bolster Iraq, maintain the alliance with Turkey, protect the Kurds, and help negotiate a political settlement that involves the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Accomplishing one of two of those goals was extremely difficult; tackling them all, probably impossible.

Trump wrote in his tweet that defeating ISIS in Syria was his “only” reason for staying there. He’s pretending that he’s defeated ISIS, thus presaging an exit. But ISIS and other jihadis will interpret—and widely herald—this move as their defeat of the American giant. The rest of the world—friends, foes, and others—will agree. Then where will Trump be? His word, already dubious currency, will mean nothing to anybody. And, by the way, if he doesn’t withdraw, if he lets his tweet drift into the ether as just another early-morning hiccup, his status as an unserious man will chalk up another notch.

He threatens to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t fund the wall—then backs off. He threatens to sue NBC for the satirical savagings of his presidency on Saturday Night Live—which, like most of his threatened lawsuits, is taken as a joke from the get-go. He threatens North Korea with more sanctions, or even an attack, if it doesn’t dismantle its nuclear weapons at once—then says his new best friend, Kim Jong-un, can take all the time in the world.

Either way this eruption over Syria plays out, the United States will emerge as a weaker nation.

Update, Dec. 19, 2018: This article originally reported that 14 U.S. troops had died during the four years of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq. A Pentagon spokeswoman later supplied the data for fatalities just in Syria, and the article has been updated to reflect that information.