Why Trump’s Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Syria is the Right Call

by | Dec 24, 2018 |

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For a number of years both on the America Out Loud platform and elsewhere, I’ve been writing and talking about the “Trump Doctrine” from the standpoint of strategy, strategic planning, and policy implementation. I discussed his way of thinking, his process, and his execution both in foreign policy and national security, as well as his approach to Washington politics. His methodology is tried and proven from his many years in business and has been key in his approach to negotiating deals and implementing strategy. In the past week we were somewhat taken by surprise by his proclamation on our policy with Syria and the subsequent planned rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country. Trump’s sudden withdrawal from Syria will be Trump’s first practical application of a true “America First” foreign policy. It has been long overdue.
Mid-week past, President Trump announced that he is bringing home America’s troops from Syria just two years after he was elected president. Suddenly, but not surprising, his plan to end one of America’s involving of many wars prompted a figurative mob to gather outside the White House, with torches and pitchforks at the ready.
Of course, the mob wasn’t made up of angry farmers or factory workers. Instead, the feverish crowd constituted Washington’s war party of neocons, and of all groups, Democrats and the political-left — ivory tower think-tankers, editorialists promoting perpetual war, wannabe commanders-in-chief eager to launch their next democracy crusade, and politicians who collected draft deferments when their lives were on the line — but who now see the need for the United States to “exercise leadership.”  This of course was all promoted and promulgated by the liberal media elites.
Before I go on, let’s first remember, the United States Congress never declared war on Syria, yet leading members of Congress are now in total melt down about the decision of President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from that country. The harsh and raucous cacophonous criticism of the President Trump’s decision within the Beltway may be the best evidence of his wisdom. As I’ve always said with Trump, the louder the political-left and media screams, is the greatest evidence he is right. Realize, that if you were not aware by now, Syria is not America’s war. Washington’s security interests always were minimal. The humanitarian tragedy in the country has been overwhelming, but it is beyond America’s ability to fix it. Nor should it have been. And Trump knows that.
More directly, Trump’s critics complain that the Islamic State aka ISIS is not yet eradicated from the earth. One New York columnist wrote, “long-term stability is still far from guaranteed against a force that remains a powerful idea—both in war-ravaged Syria and throughout the volatile region, referring to ISIS — even as its military wing is decimated.” However, the United States can’t fix the underlying causes of radical-Islam. Moreover, the Islamic State’s long list of enemies — Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Gulf States, Iran, Russia — should be able to handle the aftermath, or of any military capable reconstitution. America does and has done more for the world than any nation, but America should not and cannot do everything for everyone, forever.
Washington’s “usual suspects” came with a gaggle of bizarrely ambitious alternative objectives to justify America’s continued military presence. Why remain in a multisided civil war filled with bad actors and participants with bad choices and worse horrible outcomes? As a result, many questions must be asked. Why stay to protect the Kurds — not to mention with only two thousand special operations forces across an area that covers western Iran, norther Iraq, eastern Turkey and Syria. Or to mollify and or satisfy the Turks, limit and counter the Iranians and their IRGC forces, cow to the Syrians, or to keep in check and moderate the Russians and their expanse and entrenchment in Syria and the region? That was not our mission, nor should we once again allow mission creep to dictate our presence, our op-tempo or distract from our objective or the end-state.
Further, we must understand, Congress has not authorized military action in Syria, even against the Islamic State. The authorization for the utilization of military force passed after 9/11 was directed against Al Qaeda as a result of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by the United States Congress on September 14, 2001. It authorizes the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001 and any “associated forces” — not new groups which did not then exist and did not participate in the attacks. By law, the AUMF cannot be stretched to cover Syria, Iran, Russia, Turkey, or any other new or emerging threat.
Of course, Congress had no reason to authorize force in Syria, which is and had not been a direct security problem for America. The U.S. prospered for decades while a hostile and even stronger Syrian Arab Republic was allied with the Soviet Union. Would it be good if Bashar al-Assad was a warm, loyal, devoted ally like, say perhaps, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman? Sure, maybe. But the fact is, that Assad is not a cause for direct military intervention. As a superpower, America has interests all over the world. Further, as a superpower, our interest are prioritized as vital national or national interests in general, a sizable number of them aren’t particularly important. More so, very few are worth going to war.
Russia’s involvement in Syria doesn’t matter. Washington is allied with Turkey by way of our NATO partnership, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf States. Likewise, the United States shares influence in Iraq and Lebanon. Moscow has a close relationship with Syria, a long-time ally now a wreck of its former self. Russia has some clout with Iran, an overstretched, uneasy partner at best tied mainly to weapons deals and energy services. On a greater scale, one must ask, who is winning the Russo-American contest? Despite, what the mainstream media spout, Americans can sleep at night.
As far as Iran goes, the Tehran regime is malicious, but probably less so than Washington’s Saudi partner, which has destabilized the region through its war in Yemen, abducted Lebanon’s prime minister, and supported fundamentalist Wahhabism and radical groups across the Middle East and southwest Asia. Despite the administration’s extraordinary fixation on Iran, the latter does not threaten America directly, which is multiple degrees more powerful. Israel, which possesses multiple nuclear weapons, is also able to defend itself. Iranian activity in Syria, while expansive and deliberate, does not diminish the lethality of Israel’s overall deterrent. If fact, I confidently say Israel is a greater threat to Iran – and Tehran knows it.
So over the course of this past week, we once again witnessed perennial war-hark Senator Lindsey Graham, after several months of accommodating and courting favor with President Trump, suddenly once again complains that the pull-out would “be seen by Iran and other (regional) bad actors as a sign of American weakness in the efforts to contain Iranian expansion.” Actually, supporting a major ally under attack isn’t really “expansion.” (Washington does it all the time!) Anyway, plenty of other nations have reason to help constrain Tehran, whose modest influence is most felt in divided and war-ravaged states. But they certainly prefer not to act if the United States is willing to do their dirty work.
President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton insisted that the United States was “not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” This fixation on Tehran has badly distorted U.S. Middle East policy. Iran’s relationship with Syria may not be to America’s liking, but it is long-standing and exists at the invitation of Syria’s legitimate government. Both Damascus and Tehran have far more at stake in maintaining their relationship than the United States does in disrupting their ties—especially since Washington has threatened both countries militarily. America won’t be able to force anyone home.
And of course the biggest question and the greatest uproar is over the Kurds and how America would unjustly be abandoning one of our closest allies in the region. To presume that Kurdish forces, at the behest of a small American presence, again, 2,000+ special operations forces would permanently deter or block a Syrian-Iranian cooperate assault against the Kurds, when the greatest and most immediate threat against them comes from Ankara is, well, sensational. It’s more likely that a Syrian-Kurdish arrangement or agreement allowing conflicting parties to coexist peacefully, either indefinitely or until a final settlement is reached aka a sort of modus vivendi would better protect for the most, part some degree of Kurdish autonomy from Turkish attack.
Nevertheless, there are those ever-ready to critics who this week complained that Trump’s withdrawal would leave the Kurds vulnerable to Turkey. Notably, one newspaper casually and callously insisted that the White House should be saying no to Ankara’s invasion plan, instead of leaving the U.S.’ loyalist ally in the fight against Islamic State at the mercy of Turkish President Erdogan, and to Syrian forces backed by Russian and Iranian. That said, history will show that Washington’s objections did not stop Turkey’s earlier operations against the Kurds, to which Ankara views the Kurds as a serious threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.
Notwithstanding, another prominent Washington, DC media outlet complained of “the stab in the back” — if I recall, however, the U.S. never promised Syria’s Kurds military protection, which essentially would have to pretty much last forever. Indeed, after all, Washington already made that strategic choice when it ‘did not’ protect Kurdistan from retaliation by Iraq, Iran, and Turkey after the latter held an independence referendum. Furthermore, Washington also made little to no effort if any to block decades of brutal military operations against the Kurds in Turkey, or protect them in the assault on Afrin and surrounding territory in Syria earlier this year.
Finally, the Pentagon, nor the U.S. can justify a permanent military garrison or sizable and substantial military presence and the force necessary to do so, while at the same time illegally occupying Syria amid a civil war to protect an unofficial militia from attack by both the legally legitimate sovereign Damascus government, let alone a neighboring NATO ally. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has a plan — which I will address in a forthcoming article on America Out Loud.
Unfortunately, there is the other extreme, as would be expected, hope also burns eternal in some hearts that by effectively dismantling the country –illegally occupying roughly 30 percent of Syria’s territory along with much of its oil resources – that Washington could pressure Assad to step down, accept elections, or otherwise become the “reformer” that Hillary Clinton once proclaimed him to be. However, Assad is more secure today than at any other point since the civil war erupted. Since August the cities of Aleppo and Homs, as well as the Damascus suburbs once held by insurgents, all were under the Syrian military’s complete control. The U.S. presence is inconvenient, but having survived the worst of the civil war, why would Assad quit now?
Then of course, there is the often repeated concern for regional stability, which the United States in every respect favors, despite the past acts by the Obama administration at least when it was not removing Mubarak from office, ousting Libya’s government, or propping up the Muslim Brotherhood. In any case, America’s small presence in Syria cannot stabilize the country or region: political change is necessary to reform the underlying conditions, while training local security forces in Syria could trigger another stage in the ongoing civil war. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Theodore Kattouf and other military experts, including myself, have acknowledged to that current “U.S. troops levels are insufficient to otherwise change the non-ISIS factions and groups on the ground.” Genuine stability requires addressing Damascus which will require a diplomatic effort among the participants and regional actors.
That, said, again as expected, President Trump’s critics are playing the usual rhetorical games. Withdrawing means “turning over” the country to one or more bad actors, as if Syria was America’s to give away. As I said before and continue to say, those who demand a permanent presence conveniently ignore the lack of a legal basis, based on international law, for even temporary intervention, let alone a expansion or sizable increase in military would be required. And objectives — such as thwarting Iranian, Russian, and Syrian misbehavior—are stated without explaining how a couple thousand American special operations forces would achieve them. Once again, we heard, the ever-hysterical Lindsey Graham complain of the “devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world.” Actually, the Mideast matters far less these days, and would diminish in importance still further if Washington did not make that dismal assembly of nations central to American foreign and military policy.
Senator Graham also denounced President Trump for his “Obama-like decision,” really Senator? — The ultimate slur from such a war-happy neoconservative. Notwithstanding, others complained that Trump’s decision “could be worse” than the withdrawal from Iraq since Syria is in worse shape. Other Republicans also pointed to the Iraqi pullout, ignoring the fact that Obama hewed to George W. Bush’s agenda and timetable. And the troops could not stay without a Status of Forces Agreement, which Bush was unable to negotiate because Iraqi government support was lacking. Additionally, a continuing American presence would not have prevented violence; rather, U.S. troops would have been targeted by Iranian-backed Shia extremists, as well as Sunni insurgents and terrorists subgroups. Any responsibility for ISIS’s effective resurgence in Syria lies in Damascus, not Washington.
Nevertheless, President Trump’s detractors remain inconsolable. A number of Washington-based ever-hawkish columnists, proclaimed the “outsize security and political benefits” of America’s “military footprint” in Syria. In fact, the presence is all cost, further entangling Washington in multiple Middle Eastern conflicts, even creating the potential for military clashes with Turkish, Russian, Iranian, and Syrian forces. It brings to mind President Ronald Reagan turning American civilian and military personnel into targets by intervening in Lebanon’s civil war. With no critical or vital U.S. interests at stake in Syria, this policy to continue to keep U.S. forces in Syria is not just bad; it is stupid.
Further, all of this would be appalling enough on its own, but matters are even worse than they appear. The U.S. military presence in Syria, and its swollen mission set present several major (even existential risks) to American interests and safety. Should the effort continue on the current path, the U.S. could find itself in a shooting war with Russia, we’ve come close already, likewise, or even a NATO ally, Turkey. Furthermore, if the “war on terror” has demonstrated anything, it is that the longer the U.S. military stays on the ground, the more likely the outbreak of a prolonged nationalist/Islamist insurgency that may stretch far beyond of that we experienced with ISIS, to the broader Sunni population.
Finally, again, such questionably legal and doubtfully legitimate interventions – executed without Congressional mandate – threaten to upend the ostensible constitutional framework for war-making. Both liberals and genuine (small c) conservatives alike should abhor such executive overreach – whether perpetrated by President Trump or as we experienced time and time again with Obama. President Trump is right to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Continued military action in Syria is all risk and no reward, a formula for disaster and likely, another endless war. It is upon the rock of Syria – among other ongoing conflicts – that the future of U.S. foreign policy and the fate of the Constitution itself may be tested. The outcome is unclear, but prudence seems a distant prospect.
America’s efforts, by way of Washington’s overall objective should be to ensure peace for America, not to micromanage the conflicts and internal entanglements of other nations, unless, vital U.S. interests and American lives are at stake. Recklessly, many pundits, the so-called national security and military experts irresponsibly complained that President Trump “just told Iran and all of our regional allies we don’t believe in sticking it out to achieve our foreign policy objectives.” Unfortunately, and in this case, sometimes those objectives are not worth the cost of what would essentially be a permanent war and more American lives lost.
Again, we must both state and justify what our vital U.S. interests are and the impact of protecting them and securing them, and at what costs are we willing to deal. Withdrawal from Syria would be the president’s first practical application of a true “America First” foreign policy. It has been long overdue. Once the President finishes with Syria, he should evaluate, assess, and determine our goals and objectives for Yemen and Afghanistan. Determine our vital interests, within those nations, regionally and the overall impact and reevaluate our national security policy for those nations.

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Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force and international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism.

Waurishuk is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and served as Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC.

Currently, he is the Chairman of the Hillsborough County (FL) Republican Executive Committee and Party and serves on the Executive Board of the Republican Party of Florida.

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