Trump Is Right to Withdraw From Syria

President Trump has ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. This is the right decision. The U.S. military presence in Syria has not been authorized by Congress, is illegal under international law, lacks a coherent strategy, and carries significant risks of entangling America in a broader quagmire in yet another Middle Eastern country.

As I wrote in Axios:

The Obama administration first deployed U.S. troops to Syria to complement its aerial bombing campaign against ISIS with special operations forces and coordinate with local anti-ISIS militias on the ground, gradually expanding from hundreds of troops to roughly 4,000.

The mission expanded, too, from merely defeating ISIS (substantially accomplished some time ago) to ushering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power, expelling Iranian forces, and edging out Russia.

The bottom line: Absent achievable goals and a strong national security imperative backed up by congressional authorization, the U.S. presence in Syria is illegitimate and better off wound down.

One prominent criticism of Trump’s decision is that it lacks a clear public explanation and evades the carefully planned and coordinated inter-agency process that enables such a withdrawal to be executed safely and responsibly. This is a fair criticism. Indeed, Trump seems not to have consulted the Defense Department, State Department, or really any of the national security principals in his administration before making this announcement.

But the fault for evading process may lie more with the president’s hawkish advisors than with Trump himself. Trump has long expressed disapproval for the U.S. military presence in Syria, but his own officials – including National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and the current Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey – either resisted or ignored the Commander in Chief’s clearly stated preferences on an ongoing military mission. That may have made the president feel he had no choice but to circumvent process and issue the order to withdraw on his own, via Twitter. 

That said, I do worry about an administration that is too deferential to Trump’s every whim. I was heartened, for example, that cabinet officials spent months pushing back on Trump’s call to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Likewise with the president’s request for military options against North Korea, which the Pentagon reportedly slow-walked in the months before Trump shifted from maximum pressure to diplomatic negotiations with Kim Jong-un. And when Trump reportedly asked Mattis to assassinate Assad, it was probably a good thing that the Secretary of Defense chose not to take the suggestion seriously. 

That withdrawal is the right decision does not mean Syria will flourish in peace and security. Several undesirable contingencies may occur in the aftermath of our exit. The Turks may engage in operations against the Kurds in Syria’s northeast. ISIS may make some gains here and there. But if these things materialize, they should not be cited as proof that withdrawal was unwise. That’s exactly the flawed argument hawks employed to criticize the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq. Sure, it left a vacuum in which ISIS emerged. But ISIS itself is a product of the US invasion of Iraq. And our presence in Syria could very well be creating comparable unintended consequences, instead of preventing them.

It can’t be America’s purpose to indefinitely forestall every plausible misfortune that may or may not bedevil this troubled region. In the near term, we can engage in diplomacy to try to curb Turkish plans to target the Kurds. And with regard to ISIS, it’s not at all clear that their permanent defeat depends on maintaining a U.S. ground presence in Syria. The extremist group is already decimated, and even without an indefinite U.S. presence, it is surrounded by enemies to whom we can pass the buck (should resurgence even occur, which is not a given).

Anyone who favors a U.S. military presence in Syria should be calling for Congress to formally authorize it. That process will require making a strong public case that deployment is required to preempt an immediate threat to U.S. security and that the mission have coherent, achievable goals that clearly define what victory looks like. Otherwise, our presence in Syria is illegitimate.