Trump’s Syria plan is Obama 2.0

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPence lobbies anti-Trump donors to support reelection: report The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump attacks on McCain rattle GOP senators Obama reveals his March Madness bracket MORE’s rush to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq ensured the revival of the Islamic State, whose foot soldiers would soon carry out massacres in the streets of Paris, Brussels, Orlando, and San Bernardino. If President TrumpDonald John TrumpCummings says Ivanka Trump not preserving all official communications Property is a fundamental right that is now being threatened 25 states could see severe flooding in coming weeks, scientists say MORE orders a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, as looks likely, he will be making precisely the same mistake.

The pursuit of an Obama 2.0 policy toward Syria would also be a valuable gift to Iran, which can barely afford to prop up the Assad regime while its own citizens protest their immiseration. Without U.S. troops in the way, Tehran will be able to complete its land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean and deliver with greater ease advanced weapons to Hezbollah, its partner in the quest to wipe Israel off the map.

Still, it is not hard to understand why the president’s instincts favor withdrawal. American troops have spent more than 17 years fighting wars in the Muslim world. Despite the troops’ extraordinary sacrifices, the threat of radical Islamist terrorism only seems to have grown. As a candidate, President Trump promised to crush the terrorists and then bring the troops home. He then won the 2016 election by listening to his instincts rather than following conventional wisdom.

At the same time, Trump was unsparing in his criticism of Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq. Starting the war may have been a mistake, but ending it in such a careless manner was at least as foolish. Trump ought to pause for a moment and consider why Obama insisted on withdrawing every last soldier from Iraq, even though military leaders warned him very clearly of the consequences.

Like Trump, Obama felt a strong obligation to deliver exactly what he had promised. He also seemed to have an eye on his re-election campaign, which began only months after the last troops came home. He just needed Iraq to stay quiet for about a year.

If Obama decided to keep just 10,000 or 15,000 troops in Iraq — out of the 150,000 deployed circa 2009 — he could have avoided the disasters of his second term. Instead, Obama rigidly insisted on drawing down to zero. (Misleadingly, he would claim this was an Iraqi demand.)

What matters far more than getting to zero is reducing the cost of operations. One of the most remarkable things about the campaign in Syria is that it achieved success by employing just 2,000 troops alongside tens of thousands of local fighters, mainly Kurdish, who did most of the fighting and dying. To insist that these 2,000 must come home, regardless of the consequences, misses that larger point.

The White House should also bear in mind that the Obama administration considered Iran to be a potential partner in the region, so it did not have to worry much about Tehran exploiting the vacuum that Washington left behind. Yet as Trump explained in his annual address to the UN, “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations.”

To deprive Iran of the means to spread violence and instability, the Trump administration is pursuing a policy of maximum economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. Withdrawing from Syria would undermine this policy. The State Department estimates that Iran has spent $16 billion to prop up the Assad regime and to support its other proxies in the region. If Assad reclaims northeast Syria from the U.S. he will regain control of his country’s oil fields and most productive agricultural land.

Reclaiming the northeast allows Iran to complete a ground corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, via Baghdad and Damascus. For the moment, Iran relies principally on cargo planes to deliver men and materiel to Syria. The deliveries include advanced weapons for Hezbollah, and enable Iran to build up its own forces in southern Syria, so it can strike Israel itself. With the land bridge in place, Iran could accelerate its build up, almost certainly provoking further retaliation from Israel, potentially leading to a major war.

Trump has been most effective as commander-in-chief when reversing the mistakes made by his predecessor. He will risk all that he has achieved in the Middle East by opting for a Syria policy that is Obama 2.0.

David Adesnik is director of research and a Syria analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.