On December 19, US President Donald Trump announced in a video that “we have won against ISIS,” and that it was time to bring the troops home, with aims of a withdrawal by early April next year. This abrupt declaration of victory largely contradicts the advice of senior officials and US foreign policy direction, prompting the resignation of respected Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as well as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk. Additionally, the move will see immediate impacts on key US partners on the ground, namely the Kurdish militias that have conducted much of the fighting against ISIS who are now placed in a highly vulnerable position politically. Carrying reminiscence to the US withdrawal from Iraq which concluded in 2011 and its subsequent impact, this most recent announcement casts a precarious shadow on regional security, and sends a poor message to partners that have fought alongside the US throughout the campaign.
Following the announcement of the pull-out, Secretary Mattis posted his letter of resignation online, within which he signaled his disagreement to the decision, writing “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” A well-respected figure within the US Department of Defense as well as the wider Trump Administration, his resignation has been met with shock from lawmakers in Washington, with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi expressing “I’m shaken by the news because of the patriot that Secretary Mattis is.” A former Pentagon official also told POLITICO that among other disagreements and the fears that Trump would domineer his advisers on Afghanistan, “those were the last straws.”
James Dobbins, a Senior Fellow with the RAND corporation attests that the decision to pull out of Syria is more counter-productive than anything else and joins other analysts in pointing out the recent consistency with the US to withdraw from commitments in the Middle East, though this decision has a much greater potential to inflict harm than good. Dobbins also argues that it is important for US credibility to assist the Kurds in striking a deal with Damascus for greater political autonomy and security, however US officials had been “operating on the assumption that US forces would be remaining a while longer, [and] have been dissuading the Kurds from seeking such an arrangement.” It also solidifies sentiment Kurdish leaders had expressed over the summer, The Guardian reporting that they felt they were “more mistress than bride” to its US counterparts.
As proven in previous instances, the US has continued to make a large contribution to security in the Middle Eastern region for nearly 20 years. In that time, it has become clear how fragile the systems of government are, particularly across Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and that any power vacuum that results from a withdrawal or toppling of a regime cascades into further instability. This instability of course produces other off-shoot problems including refugees and extremist activity, and due to the terrain and remoteness of much of the region, it is incredibly hard to amend. Deciding to once again withdraw military presence from this region rolls the dice and opens an opportunity for other actors including Russia and Turkey to pursue their interests in the absence of the US military.
After nearly 8 years of civil war, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that over 511,000 have died in Syria, with 85% being civilians killed by pro-government forces. Even with ISIS at a very weak point with a few thousand remaining, it is important to remember that the group is symptomatic of a larger plethora of issues that continues to plague countries such as Syria. A rapid pull-out now seems more irresponsible and counter-productive than the victory it is being sold as.
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