To Americans who’ve grown accustomed to long wars with no end in sight, it came as a shock when President Trump said on Dec. 19 that U.S. forces would leave Syria within 30 days. His advisers seemed as surprised as anyone.
Reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that Trump extended the time frame to four months. Over the next several weeks, administration officials struggled to define a plan, at first suggesting conditions were not right for a withdrawal and later insisting a pullout was certain but that the timing was impossible to predict.
Trump’s impulsive style of governing doesn’t serve the country well, but this time his instinct was right. The United States needs a withdrawal plan for its 2,000 troops in Syria.
As the world’s deadliest ongoing conflict — 350,000 killed, 12 million displaced — the war in Syria calls for fresh thinking to untangle a complex web of violence. Trump may not have a plan for peace in Syria, but proposing to remove the U.S. from the fight proves it would be possible to change the dynamics of the conflict.
Bipartisan criticism of a withdrawal showed how fiercely many politicians will defend a long-term U.S. military presence in potential havens of terrorism. But supporters of a withdrawal pointed out two things: the Syrian territory once occupied by ISIS has been retaken, and military operations will never be able to fully defeat a movement like ISIS.
Further, critics of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria observed that the very existence of ISIS stems from jihadist resentment of the U.S. troops’ presence. A broader goal — asserting U.S. power against Russian and Iranian influence — would keep U.S. forces in Syria indefinitely.
Peace advocates urged negotiation that offers the incentive of a rebuilt nation. Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, advised that “successful diplomacy is possible, if the U.S. foreign policy establishment would for once recognize that United Nations-based diplomacy, rather than war, might be the prudent path.”
Analysts see a similar opportunity in Afghanistan, where Trump has said he wants to withdraw half of the 14,000 U.S. troops, possibly by summer. Robert D. Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, wrote in The New York Times: “An enterprising American diplomat, backed by a coherent administration, could try to organize an international peace conference involving Afghanistan and its neighbors, one focused on denying terrorist groups a base in South-Central Asia.” The U.S. spends $45 billion annually on the war in Afghanistan, with “virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy,” Kaplan wrote.
Mennonite Central Committee called the withdrawal announcement a step in the right direction. An MCC Washington Office statement urged U.S. investment in rebuilding Syria and in diplomatic negotiations. MCC endorses “an end to all foreign military involvement in Syria, as our partners in Syria have urged for years.”
Standing firm against criticism of a withdrawal from Syria would be one more way for the president to shun conventional thinking and shake up the Washington establishment. In this case, Trump brings a welcome disruption.