Sun Sentinel: Trump Syria pullout an abdication of U.S. leadership

January 2, 2019

By JDCA Board Chair Rep. Ron Klein and Executive Director Halie Soifer

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria epitomizes his administration’s deeply flawed foreign policy. The president’s abrupt and reckless decision was reportedly reached against the guidance of U.S. military leaders, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis. As Mattis asserted in his resignation letter, a world view defined by “treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors” is incompatible with the views of Donald Trump. In other words, Trump’s withdrawal from Syria is a betrayal of our allies and a boon to our adversaries. It’s not “America First” in any respect. Rather, it’s an “Iran and Russia First” policy.

Donald Trump lacked a coherent strategy and defined objective in Syria prior to his abrupt troop withdrawal announcement. While a bipartisan group of members of Congress welcomed Trump’s limited military response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in April 2018, in the eight months that have followed, Trump’s Syria policy has been meandering and ill-defined at best. At worst, it has directly played into the hands of our adversaries, especially now that we have telegraphed to ISIS, Assad, and others an imminent U.S. military retreat. This is precisely the critique that Republicans – including Donald Trump – had of President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. The one key difference, however, is that Trump’s withdrawal has come at a time of American isolation and weakness, when we are lacking the international alliances essential to defending our national security interests.

The results of this flawed decision are significant and mounting. A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will lead to the further diminution of American credibility and leadership in the world, and may lead to a sharp increase in regional security threats. The 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria acted as a deterrent to Russian and Iranian overreach in the region and provided the U.S. with vital intelligence and a strategic foothold in a historically volatile neighborhood. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will provide Iran with its long-sought land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. In the absence of U.S. troops, the land continuum between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon now gives Iran unimpeded access across the region.

Regional actors who rely on the U.S. for their security, especially Israel and the Kurds, now must fend for themselves against ISIS, Assad, Iran, and its proxy militias. Even worse, Trump appears unfazed by the security implications of his decision. During his recent visit to Iraq, Trump told reporters that Israel was capable of providing for its own defense. Referring to Israel, Trump stated “…they’ve been doing a very good job for themselves,” seemingly unconcerned that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria creates new defense burdens for Israel.

Trump’s withdrawal from Syria counters the best interests of the U.S., Israel, and other allies in the region because it shifts strategic realities on the ground. The so-called “buffers” on Syria’s southern border with Jordan and southeastern border with Iraq – where U.S. Special Forces had been stationed – will soon be erased. In eastern Syria, Iran will have direct access to arm and supply its proxy terrorist organization, Hezbollah, opening up yet another front for potential regional conflict. With tens of thousands of missiles already stationed on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Israel must now also contend with Hezbollah on its border with Syria. Indeed, former Israeli Defense Minister Liberman recently warned that Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria increases the risk of a major military confrontation between Israel and Iranian-backed forces. Even ISIS, which lost its territory in northern Syria and has been relegated to disparate bands of fighters, can now reconstitute. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has laid the foundation for the resurgence of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

Trump’s Syria retreat is also symbolically problematic, as it represents the ceding of U.S. global leadership to our adversaries including Russia, which has been aiming to control Syria since it entered its civil war in 2013. Trump reportedly made this decision based on assurances from Turkish President Erdogan that Turkey would continue to battle ISIS in Syria, which directly contradicts Trump’s erroneous claim that ISIS has already been defeated. The fact that Trump acquiesced to Erdogan and blatantly ignored the advice of U.S. military and intelligence officials is alarming. Perhaps even worse is that it directly contradicts U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s assertion just three months ago that the U.S. would not leave Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

For more than two years, Donald Trump has touted his alleged “America First” foreign policy. But his abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria has laid bare an uncomfortable truth – Trump’s foreign policy contradicts America’s best interests, abandons our allies, and benefits our adversaries. This truly is an “Iran and Russia First” policy, and the consequences are grave and dangerous. It is now incumbent on members of Congress to intervene, conduct meaningful oversight of the executive branch, and serve as a check on Trump’s reckless abdication of U.S. leadership. America’s national security, and that of our allies, depends on it.

Ron Klein is Chairman of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and a former member of Congress from Florida, where he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Halie Soifer is Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and a former national security advisor in the Senate and Obama administration.