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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.
In a stunning move, President Trump decided to remove all U.S. combat forces from Syria. This unexpected action is in keeping with a promise he made during the 2016 presidential campaign.
On December 19, Trump stated in a Twitter post, “We have won against ISIS, we have beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land, and now it is time for our troops to come back home.”
Trump Blindsides His National Security Team
When the president made this decision, he sharply contradicted many of his senior military commanders and civilian advisors, who warned that ISIS was still fighting in both Syria and Iraq. Many experts estimate that there are more than 40,000 ISIS fighters still left in both countries and that ISIS has a strong presence in other countries from Africa to Asia.
Trump’s decision is eerily similar to one made by President Obama, who removed all U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2010. Unfortunately, Obama’s decision allowed the Islamic State to establish itself by carving out a segment of Syria and Iraq and defeating the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. As a result, U.S. military forces returned to the area.
Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria has ramifications far beyond this country. It undermines the U.S. position in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions; many of our allies and strategic partners will lose trust in the United States.
Was Turkey the Real Reason to Withdraw US Troops?
This begs the real question: Was Trump’s announced troop withdrawal from Syria intended to appease and gain the support of Turkey? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strongly criticized U.S. efforts to arm and train Syrian Kurdish forces that have been fighting the Islamic State Group (ISG) in Syria. This same faction, armed and trained by the Pentagon, has links to The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara claims is a terrorist group operating inside Turkey.
Middle Eastern experts Jon B. Alterman and Will Todman, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported on December 19 that Erdogan threatened an imminent Turkish incursion into Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria, putting U.S. troops at risk. Turkey, a NATO ally, had been flirting with the idea of buying an S-400 Russian missile defense system rather than the U.S.-built Patriot system.
Following President Trump’s phone call with Erdogan on Friday, Turkey agreed to buy the U.S. system for $3.5 billion. In addition, the White House confirmed that Trump is considering extraditing Turkish dissident and religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999.
Trump Not Considering How Other Countries Will View Troop Pullout
The U.S. has never developed a broad and effective strategy for any of the current Middle East conflicts. Trump’s systematic troop pullout from Syria will have ramifications for the U.S. position in Iraq and in Afghanistan, another country from which Trump has indicated that he wants to remove combat forces.
President Trump appears to be taking a business-like approach to the conflicts in the Middle East region and is looking at these troop removals through a cost-analysis prism. However, Trump has not considered what effect the troop pullout will have on allies in the region and U.S. adversaries alike, to say nothing of America’s standing in the world.
In the past, our adversaries knew they never had to defeat the U.S. All they had to do was wait us out, as eventually the U.S. would grow tired and withdraw as we have done in previous conflicts such as Vietnam.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the cost and casualties in any of America’s wars cannot be ignored. The latest publicly available Cost of War report issued by the Department of Defense indicates that:
- The total direct cost of America’s wars since 2010 will be $1.77 trillion through the end of fiscal year 2018.
- That amount includes $756 billion for Iraq and Syria and $730 billion for Afghanistan, as well as a large amount of additional support for both wars.
Cordesman adds that while the State Department has never provided a credible cost for its part of the Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan conflicts, an estimated figure would be about another $127 billion to $132 billion.
According to Cordesman, there have been significant U.S. casualties. The Department of Defense reported that between 2010 and 2018, there were 6,978 U.S. military dead (5,434 killed in combat) and 52,783 servicemembers wounded.
Previous Presidents Contributed to Current Situation in the Middle East
Before all the blame is heaped on Trump for his current Middle East actions, the situation needs to be viewed in a broader context. Trump did not create the current situation alone; other presidents also played a role.
For example, President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan without any clear strategy for defeating the Taliban and did not establish a stable Afghan government. Also, Bush did not address Pakistan’s interference in the country or its support of Islamic terrorist organizations.
Bush also went into Iraq without any semblance of a strategy for dealing with a post- Saddam Hussein government. Consequently, the aftermath of the invasion was grossly mismanaged. That created a new threat from Sunni Islamic extremists and Iraq became open to Iran.
Similarly, President Obama failed to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq and did not take advantage of the successful troop surge in 2007 and 2008, which stabilized the country. He left Iraq to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who embraced Iran and fomented sectarian and ethnic tensions.
Maliki placed cronies in the military hierarchy and overturned the training his military leaders had received from the U.S. As a result, these leaders suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of ISIS.
President Obama further exacerbated the U.S. failure by not intervening in Syria when opposition to the government first surfaced. Ideally, he should have worked in conjunction with Arab allies that could have forced Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad from power.
Obama also did not enforce his own red line when Syria used chemical weapons on its own people. As a result, Russia gained a foothold in the Middle East for the first time in 40 years. Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war led Russia to establish a naval base at Tartus and with it, access to the Middle East from the Mediterranean.
President Trump has inherited major wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as minor conflicts in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In fairness, Trump’s opponents should acknowledge that much of the strategic failure in the Middle East is the result of both Republican and Democratic presidents and their national security experts in both political parties.
US Needs a More Comprehensive Strategy
Instead of troop withdrawals, it’s time to put together a comprehensive, more realistic Middle East strategy. Trump’s premature U.S. withdrawal from Syria without consultation with his senior military leaders, national security experts or allies leaves the U.S. with no Middle East strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war or the final defeat of ISIS. This is a potential disaster in the making.
What Will Be Left Behind in the US Troop Pullout?
Left behind in the U.S. troop pullout is Assad’s authoritarian government. Also, the presence of Russia threatens core U.S. vital interests.
Furthermore, there are additional factors to be considered:
- The Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria creates instability and threatens Arab allies and Israel.
- Turkey’s potential intervention at any time will bring renewed fighting with the Kurds.
- Sunni extremists are fighting around the Syrian city of Idlib.
- Lebanon is flush with hundreds of millions of dollars that Tehran gave Hezbollah. This money is part of the hundreds of billions given to Iran as part of Obama’s nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Although Trump clearly desires to keep a campaign promise, he doesn’t appear to understand how looking at Middle Eastern conflicts from a business perspective will affect how the world views American leadership. Such an erroneous perspective could affect America’s bottom line in the future and make the world even less safe than it is now.