“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” I thought of John Kerry’s words from 1971, when I heard the terrible news Wednesday about the death of four U.S. soldiers and the wounding of three others in a suicide bombing in Manbij, Syria. In the present instance, however, you would have to amend the quote to say: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a war supposedly won?”
On Dec. 19, recall, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria with these words: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” This was news to analysts, who pointed to intelligence reports that, while the Islamic State has lost most of its territorial control, it still had some 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, making it one of the largest and most dangerous terrorist groups on the planet.
Under criticism from his own party, Trump backtracked slightly, announcing on Jan. 7, “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” Apparently, all this meant was that withdrawal would now take four months rather than one. On Friday, the pullout began with the removal of the first U.S. equipment, if not yet personnel, from Syria. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence, eager to play Little Jeff to Trump’s Jeff Dunham, faithfully announced, “The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated.” This was after the terrible news from Syria, which in one day has tripled the total number of fatalities (now up to six) suffered by U.S. forces in Syria.
It is impossible to say why the Islamic State struck now, except that it could. But there is little doubt that the announced U.S. withdrawal gives the terrorists an inducement to attack. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a colleague of mine at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes about a recent trip to Syria in Foreign Affairs. She notes that the U.S. troop presence in towns such as Raqqa and Manbij was virtually invisible, yet highly significant. Two female university students she met in Raqqa told her that the Americans “provided the invisible force field that kept ISIS down and the Russians, Iranians and Turks at bay.”
Now the force field is dissolving and all the regional actors are rushing in to try to fill the vacuum. The Islamic State has an incentive to attack U.S. troops to claim credit for their withdrawal and to demonstrate that it remains undefeated. We will see now what the other regional actors do, but it is unlikely to be what Washington wants.
Aware of the danger that the Turks would massacre the United States’ Kurdish allies, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, tried to obtain assurances from Ankara that the Kurds would be protected. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered no such assurances. But the pullout went ahead anyway behind a smokescreen of bluster. Trump tweeted Sunday, “Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20-mile safe zone ...”
This type of empty threat is worse than useless, because it undermines whatever scant credibility America has left. How could the United States “devastate” Turkey, a NATO ally that is our 34th-largest supplier of imported goods and 28th-largest export market? How could the United States create a “safe zone” without any troops on the ground to enforce it? And how could the United States use a “nearby base” to keep the Islamic State from re-forming? President Barack Obama tried that very strategy after he pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011. The United States had lots of nearby bases in countries such as Turkey and Kuwait, but they could not slow the rise of the Islamic State. Only the dispatch of U.S. troops back to Iraq in 2014 could liberate territory from Islamic State control.
Now we see many of the same conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place, with a power vacuum on the Syrian side of the border and an increasingly disaffected Sunni population on the Iraqi side. The outlook in Mosul, which the Islamic State captured in 2014 and lost in 2017, is bleak, with little reconstruction assistance from a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Shiite militias hold sway across the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, report my Post colleagues, with militiamen engaging in “mafia-like practices” and “deciding which Sunni families are allowed to return to their homes following battles against the Islamic State.”
Eastern Syria had, until now, been an island of stability thanks to the U.S. alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. achieved outsize strategic returns for a small troop investment. But now Trump appears determined to fritter those hard-won gains away. And in the process of pulling out, he leaves U.S. soldiers who are tasked with carrying out his incoherent policy fatally exposed.
(Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.)