Mission Accomplished?: Why Trump can’t withdraw troops in Syria

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By: Daniel Yun

On January 16th, 2019, four Americans were killed by an Islamic State suicide bomber in Syria. This incident came weeks after President Donald Trump declared the war against ISIS won and ordered the withdrawal of the 2,000 American special forces operators currently located in Syria. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk both resigned in protest following Trump’s announcement, but the withdrawal process has begun nonetheless.

President Trump should reverse his decision or at least delay troop withdrawal until ISIS is utterly destroyed, protection for the Syrian Kurds is guaranteed, and the Syrian rebels and President Bashar Al-Assad have reached a peace settlement. He should also be reminded that his declaration of victory is eerily analogous to former President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush announced that the war in Iraq was over, but the conflict continued on for another eight years.

Like Bush’s speech, President Trump’s declaration of victory is premature and false.  Although ISIS has been battered, the terrorist organization is far from defeated. In January, CIA Director Gina Haspel testified at a Congressional threat assessment hearing that ISIS still commands thousands of fighters across the Middle East. The recent ISIS attack in Syria is an example of its active intelligence gathering and military presence in Syria.  The Islamic State also still holds small pockets of territory in Egypt and is conducting a guerilla warfare campaign in Iraq. The group has launched numerous hit and run attacks on Iraqi patrols, instilling fear among cities that were recently liberated.

Ultimately, the United States cannot rely on Russia, Turkey, or Bashar Al-Assad’s forces to contain and combat ISIS. The United States is the only entity fighting in Syria whose sole mission is prevent the re-emergence of terrorism. President Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad are focused on defeating the remaining Syrian rebels while Turkish forces under President Erdogan emphasize containing Kurdish forces. President Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurds terrorists due to their affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party, an insurgent group in Turkey. In response to America’s request for Kurdish protection in exchange for U.S withdrawal, President Erdogan denied meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton.

In other words, the only group that the United States can trust to fully commit to counterterrorism efforts is the Syrian Kurds. Fortunately, these fighters have been quite effective in the past with U.S. support. The capture of ISIS’s former capital, Raqqa, for example, was made possible by American training and assistance of Kurdish forces. Providing air strike capability, intelligence, and weapons is also crucial for the Kurds to have an fighting advantage over ISIS. By withdrawing American troops in Syria, the Kurds will be made more vulnerable to attack from Turkish forces and ISIS alike.

There are no easy solutions to resolve the conflict in Syria. As of January 2019, President Bashar Al-Assad has reclaimed most of his territory but still faces stiff resistance from the Syrian rebels and terrorists groups such as ISIS. To date, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 400,000 people and has displaced 6.6 million. Although there have been multiple attempts to reach a peace settlement, both sides of the conflict remain firm to continue fighting. Additional foreign involvement by Iran and Israel also continue to destabilize the region. As long as the conflict in Syria rages on, ISIS will have a capability to recuperate from its wounds.  

Understandably, most Americans want no further involvement in the Middle East. According to a public opinion poll, 86.4 percent of Americans think U.S. troops should only be used as a last resort. Without military support from the United States, however, the situation in Syria will only become more chaotic, leaving a power vacuum wide enough for the Islamic State to reestablish its influence. U.S presence in Syria is like a temporary dam that will hold the water at bay until a permanent dam is built. In other words, a lasting peace settlement and protection for the Kurds will enable a U.S troop exit long-term without risking an ISIS resurgence. Until then, local forces such as the Kurds can continue to attack ISIS’s remaining territories and disrupt its network. Therefore, given the current situation, President Trump should reverse his decision to prevent a total collapse Syria and the Middle East.

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