The risks of a premature exit
The gap between the policies pursued by Donald Trump’s administration and what the President says when he is outside the range of a teleprompter continues to be disconcertingly wide. At a rally in Ohio last Thursday, Trump suddenly blurted that he might hold up the trade accord his envoys just struck with South Korea “until after a deal is made with North Korea” — an assertion that left a lot of people puzzling over how perpetuating tensions with a critical United States ally could improve the prospects for negotiations with a common adversary.
That, however, was not the most striking of Trump’s departures from his own national security strategy. After bragging that “we’re knocking the hell out of Isis”, he announced that “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now”. A day later, it emerged that the President had suspended $200 million in stabilisation funds for Syria after reading a news report about them.
That must have come as surprise to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, US commanders in the region and senior State Department officials, all of whom have been pursuing and publicly defending precisely the opposite policy for the past few months.
“We’re not just going to walk away [from Syria] right now,” Mattis said last November. “We’re going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution ... not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say good luck with the rest of it.”
Pentagon spokesman Dana Whitere iterated that position on Thursday, hours before Trump spoke, saying US forces will work with local allies “to secure and stabilise liberated territory, as our diplomats work to resolve the Syrian conflict”.
The State Department agreed.
“It is crucial to our national defence to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, and assist the Syrian people ... to achieve a new political future,” said Rex Tillerson, who was then Secretary of State, during a speech in January.
He said the Trump Administration was determined not to repeat the mistake the Obama Administration made in Iraq, when “a premature departure ... allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into Isis”.
Does Trump agree with that position? The multiple other players in Syria, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel, not to mention the regime of Bashar al-Assad, may understandably conclude that he does not. After all, the President has repeated versions of Thursday’s statement on several occasions. And although American forces have not pulled out of the large and strategically important territory that they and Kurdish forces control in eastern Syria, there has been no sign of a US push to end the civil war.
For now, even by Trump’s standard, US forces must remain, as the Islamic State still controls several pockets of territory. But the President’s words will surely encourage Russian and Iranian hopes of driving the United States out of the country, so they can entrench their military bases and political influence. That would pose a significant threat to Israel and severely damage US standing throughout the Middle East.
Which is why the Trump Administration, as opposed to Trump, has concluded that letting “other people take care” of Syria is a terrible idea.
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