Leaving the field open

The sudden withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan can empower adversarial forces

By Author  |  Published: 23rd Dec 2018  12:02 amUpdated: 22nd Dec 2018  11:20 pm

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday tweeted the surprise announcement that he has decided to pull American troops out of Syria because the Islamic State group (IS) is now ‘defeated’ and the United States would no longer be the ‘policeman of the Middle East’.

The 2,000-strong US force troops form a key part of an international military coalition that backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters — in ongoing battles against the jihadists.

The jihadists continue to hold territory in Syria and top leaders, including the group’s self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large. This is precisely why the sudden policy shift caught many by surprise. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned, leading a chorus of protests.

Mattis, a battle-hardened retired four-star general seen as a moderating force on the often-impulsive President, made little attempt to hide his disagreements. “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defence whose views are better aligned with yours,” Mattis said in a letter to Trump adding that his views on being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

To date, the US-led coalition has launched air strikes on at least 17,000 locations in Syria since the start of the operation, in September 2014 during then-President Barack Obama’s term. Last week, there were strikes on 208 locations, largely on IS fighters and facilities, according to the US military.

No Political Solution

The US withdrawal will make Russia, which has deployed its air power in support of President Bashar al-Assad, the pre-eminent global power in the Syrian conflict. “The fact that the US has decided to withdraw its troops is right,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow sees longtime ally Syria as a key asset in preserving its influence in the Middle East. Iran’s Shiite government has also strongly backed Assad.

However, Turkey opposes Assad and may be emboldened by Trump to attack Kurdish fighters inside Syria, who fought alongside US troops against the IS. Turkey links the Kurds who dominate the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to a decades-old insurgency at home but had been reluctant to strike for fear of setting off a crisis if the US suffered casualties.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Israeli military will intensify its activity in Syria to prevent Iranian entrenchment.

While fighting has largely subsided in Syria and the IS holds little territory, a political solution remains elusive in ending the war that has killed more than 3,60,000 and displaced millions since 2011.

Many Concerned

US lawmakers across the political spectrum voiced concern over a rebirth of the IS in Syria. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, said Mattis in his letter “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances and empower our adversaries.”

Brett McGurk, the administration’s envoy for the fight against IS, said, “it would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now. I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.” Sen Marco Rubio, another Republican, called the pullout “catastrophic,” and Sen Lindsey Graham, deemed it a “disaster in the making.”

Germany, which has taken in more than one million refugees stemming in large part from the Syria conflict, questioned Trump’s assessment that the threat was over. But some like Sen Bill Cassidy also support it. “We brought them there to crush ISIS. We’ve crushed ISIS. We have troops in Iraq who can spring over there (to Syria) to do something” if needed.

Is IS Really Defeated?

After conquering vast swathes of Syrian territory in 2014, IS has suffered numerous setbacks over the past two years, due to separate offensives by the SDF and Syria’s national military. The jihadists are confined to a few pockets in eastern Syria and the country’s vast Badiya desert.

Despite losing almost all the territory it conquered, IS maintains a strike capability, as seen in multiple deadly attacks in Syria in recent months. It has also resisted to the last man offensives designed to recapture its remaining strongholds. It also retains numerous dormant cells, which it has drawn on to launch suicide attacks in cities and areas retaken by its enemies in Syria.

“They have nothing to lose,” said Abdel Rahman, head, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, adding “thousands of IS fighters have mutated into dormant cells spread throughout reclaimed areas. These cells constitute an alternative army… which seeks to sow chaos and insecurity in the areas controlled by the SDF”.

The jihadists have also carried out attacks outside Syria, particularly in countries that are part of the international military coalition. IS claimed a mass shooting at a Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg on December 11 that killed five people — the latest in a long line of attacks that have targeted various cities.

The SDF, a Kurdish-led force that is America’s only military partner in Syria, said Thursday: “The war against Islamic State has not ended and the group has not been defeated.” The group is at the front lines of the battle against IS along the Euphrates River. It said a US withdrawal would leave Syrians “between the claws of enemy forces.”

Ditto in Afghanistan

Like in Syria, Trump has also decided to pull out from Afghanistan. The decision comes just days after a US representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, held a meeting in Abu Dhabi with the Taliban. However, he voiced doubts about the Taliban’s sincerity after the militants refused to meet with negotiators from the government in Kabul.

The move has stunned and dismayed diplomats and officials in Kabul who are intensifying a push to end the 17-year conflict with the Taliban, which already controls vast amounts of territory and is causing “unsustainable” Afghan troop casualties.

“If you’re the Taliban, Christmas has come early,” a senior foreign official in Kabul said on the condition of anonymity. “Would you be thinking of a ceasefire if your main opponent has just withdrawn half their troops?” Some 14,000 US troops are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of the longest-ever US war, launched in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than half would be returning.

Frittering Gains

Critics suggest the President’s twin foreign policy decisions on Syria and Afghanistan could unspool a series of cascading and unpredictable events across the Middle East and in Afghanistan. “If we continue on our present course we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11,” warned US Senator Lindsey Graham via Twitter.

Afghan forces have been taking what experts describe as ‘unsustainable’ casualties since Nato pulled its combat forces from the country in 2014.

Facts Vs claims

Trump: We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

The Facts: The militants still hold a string of villages and towns along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, where they have resisted weeks of attacks by the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces to drive them out. The pocket is home to about 15,000 people, among them 2,000 IS fighters, according to US military estimates.

But that figure could be as high as 8,000 militants, if fighters hiding out in the deserts south of the Euphrates River are also counted, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through networks of local informants.

Trump: Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the US leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.

The Facts: The US military presence has been contentious for Syrian President Bashar Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies, and all are expected to try and fill the void created by a US withdrawal.