Donald Trump’s Syria withdrawal limits troop return option
From Iraq to Lebanon to Somalia, U.S. military withdrawals over the past 40 years have often been temporary as American troops are routinely pulled back into the fight.
But analysts say President Trump’s looming pullout from Syria could challenge that pattern, especially given Russia’s heavy footprint inside the war-torn country and Mr. Trump’s dogged determination to stick to a key campaign promise.
Unlike other U.S. military exits that left a vacuum in which terrorism groups thrived, the situation in Syria has created a much more complex geopolitical dynamic. Even a full Islamic State comeback, some analysts say, may not be enough to drag American troops back into Syria and into what inevitably would be a high-stakes U.S.-Russia power struggle in the Middle East.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia on other fronts, including last week’s move by the White House to scrap a decades-old missile treaty between the two countries, have only made Syria more strategically important to Moscow, which long has wanted to flex its muscle in the region.
“The difference with Syria is there’s another great power that’s sitting there,” said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t know if [the U.S.] actually goes back there, at least in the way that we’ve seen in Iraq or Somalia or other places. Because what you’re doing is ceding it to Russia and Iran.
“It’s more of a concession that you’re going to let the Russians, a major power, essentially run Syria,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement late last year that he would pull all 2,000 American forces from Syria in short order sparked an outcry on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers of both parties warned that the U.S. exit would lead to instability and allow the Islamic State to regroup and replenish its ranks. Critics charged that the unexpected withdrawal which led directly to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who vehemently opposed the decision ultimately could require the U.S. to return to Syria over the next few years to once again defeat the Islamic State.
Those critics said that if the Islamic State does return, then the president will bear the blame.
“He’ll be one of the reasons they came back,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in December.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, made a direct appeal to the president to reconsider his Syria decision in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
Republican senators are “sending very strong signals to the president” to not make an abrupt withdrawal from the country, Mr. Johnson said.
America’s allies in Syria “want democracy, they want peace. Just having American military present, not even involved in the fighting, but as advisers, does a great deal for providing peace and stability for that part of Syria,” Mr. Johnson said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, was the driving force behind a 68-23 bipartisan vote in the Senate last week expressing strong support for the U.S. military deployments in Syria and Afghanistan and rejecting the argument that America’s enemies in those two missions have been largely defeated.
But in his announcement and in the weeks since, Mr. Trump has maintained that the U.S. has done its part and that it’s now up to Turkey, Russia and other regional actors to finish the job and ensure the Islamic State doesn’t reconstitute itself. Pentagon officials say the Islamic State’s vast “caliphate” inside Syria has been reduced to two small villages that could fall in the next few days or weeks.
In a pre-Super Bowl interview with CBS on Sunday, Mr. Trump appeared to want to have it both ways. He again defended the Syria withdrawal and reiterated his hopes to draw down American forces in Afghanistan as well. But he also said he would be open to sending U.S. troops back into Syria if the situation deteriorates or if terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al Qaeda stage a comeback.
“You know what we’ll do? We’ll come back if we have to,” said Mr. Trump, noting that the U.S. military maintains a major base in Iraq with “these massive runways.”
“We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly,” he said.
Even those who support Mr. Trump’s decision to leave warn that America could be pulled back into the fight, particularly if the U.S. or a close ally is hit with a major terrorist strike or if it becomes undeniably clear that the Islamic State is mounting a comeback.
If something happens, people will say, ‘I told you. We have to go back,’” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and less military intervention.
If such a scenario unfolds and the U.S. returns to Syria, it would be a familiar story in the annals of American foreign policy.
After the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, President Clinton pulled all U.S. forces from Somalia, where an international coalition had assembled to battle warlords who were controlling much of the country.
The U.S. stayed out for decades, but American troops eventually were sent back to the historically unstable nation, this time battling the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab. Last week, the U.S. military said it killed two dozen al-Shabab fighters in an airstrike in central Somalia.
After years of combat operations that began in 2003, the Obama administration formally withdrew combat troops from Iraq in 2011, though American forces returned in 2014 to battle the Islamic State.
Mr. Trump said last month that he has no intention of pulling American forces out of Iraq. He suggested that American military engagement there which three administrations have said they would try to end will continue in some form for the foreseeable future.
President Reagan famously withdrew troops from Lebanon after the 1983 Beirut bombings that killed 241 U.S. Marines. But American forces are back in that country, too, albeit in a limited role.
Military officials last week confirmed that U.S. troops are in the country training Lebanese forces. American special operations forces are believed to have been operating inside Lebanon for years, though the Pentagon has released few details about their mission.
The Lebanon example, some analysts say, offers a key lesson for policymakers and for Mr. Trump in particular.
“Reagan got all kinds of heat, people wanting him to get in deeper but he calculated that all we’re going to do is get more people killed,” Mr. Davis said. “We stayed out until after 9/11. It was the same before. It was the same after. All during that time, the Middle East was in complete chaos.”
In each of those instances, the U.S. has returned to countries with relatively weak central governments that allowed terrorist groups to take root. No other major world power had staked a claim in any of those nations, leaving few geopolitical obstacles for American troops to return.
The situation in Syria is far different, analysts say, in part because the American pullout will not leave a power vacuum in its wake. A withdrawal of U.S. forces will allow Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, free rein in the much of the country. It will also allow for Iranian-backed proxy groups to expand their foothold inside the country.
Moscow and Tehran would back Mr. Assad’s government as it reclaims complete control of its territory after nearly eight years of chaotic civil war.
U.S. intelligence chiefs warned last week that the Islamic State remains a formidable enemy despite the loss of its territorial base. If the terrorist group regains strength, then the factors already on the ground in Syria complicate any potential American return.
“Their footprint is going to stay,” said Mr. Jones. Russia “may decrease the number of forces, but they’ve got power-projection capabilities in Syria that could be used in the Middle East.
“And unless they’re pushed out by the Assad regime, I think Iranian actors are almost certainly going to be there for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Still, Mr. Jones said the U.S. could keep covert forces inside Syria or, if the need arises, deploy troops or air power from neighboring Iraq to strike Islamic State targets.
“There’s a little more grayness to staying in or out of Syria than people are recognizing,” he said.
Lauren Meier contributed to this report.