Why the US Military Is Leaving Syria

Children playing at the Umayyad Mosque in Syria in 2009. (Image:  Arian Zwegers via  Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Children playing at the Umayyad Mosque in Syria in 2009. (Image: Arian Zwegers via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Claiming effective defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group, U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday, Dec. 19, the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. military personnel from the war-torn Middle Eastern country of Syria. The Pentagon has begun arrangements for the action, which is to take place over a 60 to 100-day period, according to an American official who spoke with Reuters.

Christian Whiton, a senior researcher of Strategy and Public Diplomacy at the Center for the National Interest, and a senior adviser to the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush, wrote in an article published on Fox News that Trump had delivered on his promises to achieve victory over ISIS, as well as not to get the U.S. involved in “nation-building.”

“Trump campaigned for the White House on an unambiguous pledge to crush ISIS. Just one week into his presidency he ordered the Pentagon to develop a plan to “demolish and destroy” the group. Then U.S. and allied forces did just that,” Whiton wrote.

He commended the leadership of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who until recently served as the Trump administration’s secretary of defense, as being “pivotal” to the U.S. operations.

“Our militaries obliterated a jihadist force that sprung out of the vacuum of the Syrian civil war and once grew so large as to approach the outskirts of Baghdad in neighboring Iraq.”

In a Dec. 19 tweet explaining his reasons for the withdrawal, Trump said that the remaining problems in Syria were the responsibility of regional powers like Russia and Iran, which he called the “local enemies of ISIS.”

“We were doing there [sic] work,” Trump tweeted. “Time to come home & rebuild.”

U.S troops will take 60 to 100 days to complete the withdrawal from Syria. (Image: Military Archive)

U.S troops will take 60 to 100 days to complete the withdrawal from Syria. (Image: Military Archive)

“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight…..” Trump wrote in a separate tweet.

Critics of the planned withdrawal say that while ISIS has suffered superficial defeats, it still has thousands of members who could pose a threat if they regrouped. Trump has also planned troops reductions in current U.S. deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted: “Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake.”

On Dec. 20, Gen. Mattis tendered his resignation as Secretary of Defense, saying that the president needed a secretary of defense whose views were better-aligned with his own.

According to Whiton, however, the United States has more pressing concerns than solving problems in the Middle East. “By slowly moving away from fighting in backwaters stretching from Afghanistan to Libya, [Trump] can refocus more of our military power on America’s chief threat in the world: China.”

“Trump, like the public, knows instinctively that our biggest challenge lies across the Pacific,” Whiton wrote.

The Syrian civil war started in 2012 following the Arab Spring democracy movements. Since then, rebels have battled with government troops loyal to authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad in a back-and-forth conflict seeing intervention by multiple countries apart from the U.S., including Russia, Israel, and Turkey.

Due to the war, most of Syria is impoverished. Its largest remaining economic partner is China, which places great strategic importance on the Middle East for its growing energy needs.

According to Whiton, the United States should use “statecraft” to minimize Assad’s war crimes. “We should strike him again if he crosses red lines over the use of chemical weapons or threatening our Middle East allies politically or militarily, but also create an avenue for postwar reconstruction for him that does not necessarily run through Moscow or Tehran.”

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