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Other Views: President Trump made the right call on Syria

January 8, 2019

Much of America’s foreign policy establishment, on both the right and the left, has been in an uproar over President Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. If Trump’s critics are to be believed, it amounts to one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history, a catastrophe for the nation’s interests and influence in the Middle East. Although the president’s failure to consult and coordinate with Congress and allies in making the decision was a head-spinning case of diplomatic and political malpractice, on balance, critics’ fears about the withdrawal are overblown.

Here are four reasons why.

ISLAMIC STATE “CALIPHATE” ISN’T GOING TO RETURN

Islamic State now controls 1 percent of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. It has lost thousands of fighters and recruitment is down. Syria is not Iraq in 2011, where Islamic State militants advanced when there were no countervailing forces. The group’s fighters still confront thousands of determined Kurdish forces, and Syria, Iran, Israel, Turkey and Russia share a common interest in preventing an Islamic State resurgence. Jihadist attacks in northeast Syria will continue and could certainly contribute to keeping Syria unstable. But a continued U.S. military presence won’t change that, or eliminate the risk of a terrorist attack on the United States. Wiping out Islamic State was never realistic — the political, economic and sectarian grievances that inspire its fighters cannot be eliminated by military means alone.

VITAL U.S. INTERESTS WON’T

BE SACRIFICED WHEN THE TROOPS ARE WITHDRAWN

The United States doesn’t have vital interests in Syria. This was true under President Obama just as it is under Trump. Yes, the Syrian war is a proxy conflict between the U.S. and Iran and Russia, and yes the war has had a horrific toll — hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, a massive refugee crisis, cities destroyed, terrorists sent around the world — but neither the White House, Congress nor the American public, after protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. support a huge military and economic investment in Syria. Syria is not a major source of oil. It isn’t an existential threat to Israel. The terrorist threat it poses to the U.S. has been inflated and is better handled by means other than military action.

RUSSIA AND IRAN AREN’T

LEFT WITH A WIN

Iran and Russia will dominate Syria as they have done for years. Both countries have always had a greater strategic stake in Syria than the U.S. and were more willing to accept a high price to protect their interests there. Now both will struggle with the difficulties of pacifying and reconstructing a war-torn state. With American forces in place, Putin and the Iranians could leave some of the dirty work of confronting the remnants of Islamic State to Washington; no longer. And with the U.S., a common adversary, gone, tensions between Iran and Russia could rise. The more Syria becomes a burden for Russia and Iran, the better for the United States.

AMERICAN CREDIBILITY

HASN’T BEEN DESTROYED

Any damage to the U.S. stems from our own reckless rhetoric and confused policy in Syria — we never committed to ousting Assad, pushing out Iran or helping the Syrian Kurds realize their political goals. Other U.S. allies and partners will judge America’s support based on how the U.S. responds to them individually, not on how Washington has behaved in a country where it has no vital interests.

Syria was never America’s to win or lose, and getting out now is not a catastrophe.

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