US President Donald Trump is reported to have ordered a full, rapid withdrawal of more than 2,000 US troops in Syria. The US President even declared victory over ISIS in a decision that has taken Washington’s allies and advisers by surprise.
Pentagon and state department officials were left scrambling to interpret an abrupt change in course from the policy after the US decided, over the summer, that it would retain forces in Syria to ensure the “enduring defeat of ISIS”.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
US officials, however, stated that many details of troop withdrawal were not yet finalised, but they expect their country’s forces to be out by mid-January.
“I’ve been president for almost two years, and we’ve really stepped it up, and we have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly,” Trump said on Twitter.
Trump’s claim seems to contradict his own administration’s assessments. In August 2018, the Pentagon assessed there were still as many as 14,500 ISIS fighters in Syria.
It had been understood that defence officials wanted to maintain a US presence to ensure that ISIS does not regroup in any way.
Both the Pentagon and the White House statements said that the US had begun “returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign”.
The Pentagon said it was unable to provide further details of what that next phase is “for force protection and operational security reasons”.
How did the world react?
One of Trump’s supporters, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the armed services committee, called it a “huge Obama-like mistake”. In a series of tweets, Graham noted that ISIS was “not defeated”, and warned withdrawing US troops puts “our allies, the Kurds, at risk”.
I urge you to follow sound military advice when it comes to withdrawing from Syria and the fight against ISIS.
Withdrawing from Syria is a shared goal but the ‘When and How’ – matter.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 20, 2018
Israel said it had been told the US had “other ways to have influence in the area” but would “study the timeline [of the withdrawal], how it will be done and of course the implications for us”, as per a report in the BBC.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, describing the American presence there as illegitimate. Putin said that ISIS has been largely defeated on the ground.
The Russian President told journalists at his annual year-end news conference that ISIS has suffered “serious blows” in Syria. “On this, Donald is right. I agree with him,” Putin said, the Washington Post reported.
“A terrible thing” for US and its allies
Bob Corker, the outgoing chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, whose meeting with Trump, on Wednesday, was cancelled without any notification at the 11th hour, called the move “a terrible thing” for the US, its allies and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“I’ve never seen a decision like this since I’ve been here in 12 years,” he told reporters. “It’s hard to imagine that any president would wake up and make this kind of decision with this little communication, with this little preparation,” Corker said, as per a report in Al Jazeera.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defence, said Trump’s decision sends a message that “we don’t stick with people, our friends. Without the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, we couldn’t have beaten ISIS, we couldn’t have taken back [the Syrian cities of] Kobane and Raqqa because we were not willing to commit all of those troops that were necessary,” as per the Al Jazeera report.
US presence in Syria
US troops have largely been stationed in the Kurdish region in northern Syria. A partnership with an alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, has been credited with playing a significant role in virtually eliminating ISIS.
However, the militant group has not disappeared entirely. A recent US report said there were still as many as 14,000 ISIS militants in Syria and even more in neighbouring Iraq. There is a fear that the terror groups could soon shift to guerrilla tactics in an attempt to rebuild their network.
ISIS declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq. It established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Brett McGurk, US special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said last week that the group was down to its last one percent of the territory it once held in its self-styled “caliphate”. The group has no remaining territory in Iraq.
An impulsive decision?
CNN’s Stephen Collinson has called Trump’s decision a “big gamble”, saying that it was “an apparently impulsive decision that shook the world.”
Collinson wrote that Trump’s move appeared to oppose the central goal of his own policy on the Middle East. Trump planned to restrict Iran’s influence in the region since it could leave a vacuum for Tehran and other outside nations to fill.
Trump’s critics inside Washington, his own party, the military, and around the world have been terming the decision as a massive strategic blunder that could potentially help ISIS regroup.
“It’s a mistake of colossal proportions and the President fails to see how it will endanger our country,” a senior administration official told CNN‘s Jake Tapper.
Moreover, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department seems to have any idea what is supposed to happen next.
A senior administration official told Vox’s Alex Ward that “US forces will continue the fight against ISIS.” When another reporter asked when US troops could return home, the official replied: “It’s not that I’m not telling you, it’s that I don’t know, quite frankly.”
It seems that Trump has made a decision involving America’s troops while parts of his administration, who were involved in executing that decision, have no idea what to do about it.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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