President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE’s abrupt announcement last month to yank U.S. military forces from their fight against the Islamic State in Syria plunged the American foreign policy establishment into near-hysteria. Now, it seems that the White House is having second thoughts about a hasty withdrawal after all.
Rather than 30 days to leave, the White House is extending the timetable to four months. There is no need to retreat Dunkirk-fashion from the Syrian quagmire. But withdrawal is inevitable.
The hysterical reaction to Trump’s approach from both-sides of the congressional aisle, think-tank types and the media deserves brief comment before reflecting on the possible consequences from leaving the war-torn country.
What made the anti-pullout reaction so noteworthy was the lack of irony among the usual pundits. The mainstream media, as always, was against Trump, no matter what his policy. Many foreign policy doves, however, surprisingly jumped into a hawkish, pro-war stance.
Even former President Barack Obama famously noted in 2013 that “this war (against terrorism), like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”
So shrill did the Trump critics beat the war drums that one sensed a desire to reverse the intent of the original War Powers Resolution enacted at the end of the Vietnam War by Congress over President Richard Nixon’s veto. That act seeks to curb presidential warmaking without authorization from Capitol Hill.
Over the years, members of the legislative branch have challenged presidents for what they deem as unauthorized military actions, as in President Ronald Reagan's deployment of troops in Lebanon and Grenada or in President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonVirginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE’s dispatch of 16,000 troops to Haiti to enforce its transition to civilian rule or 20,000 peacekeeping soldiers in to Bosnia.
In a man-bites-dog outcome, the president wants to pull out military forces and his critics want to persist in an unpopular and increasingly purposeless conflict.
Obama’s limited intervention into the complex Syrian civil war was premised solely on the mushrooming Islamic State threat. America’s 44th president evinced little interest in advancing human rights or democracy in the fragmenting and ruined country.
The U.S. incursion has erased the Islamic State’s territorial gains and brought it to the brink of extinction.
The current Syrian configuration, with its rivalry among the warring parties, will probably not endure as the conflict against the Islamic State winds down completely. Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad will try to recover all the lands held by his local opponents.
The Turkish government might invade Syria to destroy the Syrian Kurds who are linked to Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey. Iran will push for wider influence. The Pentagon’s 2,000 troops cannot halt Iran from capitalizing on its singular role in buttressing Assad’s regime during its darkest days.
Which brings us back to an American military extraction from Syria.
The Pentagon is working to slow Trump’s precipitous redeployment out of Syria. Additionally, American commanders seek the White House’s approval for a proposal to allow the Kurdish YPG (self-protection) militias to keep their weapons that the Pentagon furnished.
The military brass and civilian experts see an abandonment of Syria as an unnecessary betrayal of the YPG forces, which led the fight to destroy the Islamic State in northeastern Syria. Realistically, regaining anti-tank rockets, mortars and armored vehicles is impossible in a conflict zone.
Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member and ally of the United States, considers the YPG militias as merely an extension of the decades-old Kurdish insurgency within its southeastern quadrant. Ankara yearns to destroy the Kurds and their independence cause.
Washington would be better served to maintain its alliance with the Kurds for two reason. First, it ill-serves America’s global standing to betray a longtime ally. Second, Washington needs bases in the region.
Military hubs within the Kurdish populations inside Syria and even Iraq would afford the Pentagon the capability of striking back not only at terrorist elements but also at Iran — America’s most implacable adversary in the greater Middle East.
The Kurds are natural allies, being the odd-man-out regionwide, among other ethnic communities. Only the Israelis hold a similar distinction, and the two are aligned openly and secretly.
President’s Trump’s instincts are correct (if not his haste) to lessen U.S. military obligations among backwater wars in the face of looming big-power threats from China and Russia.
Deterring and even fighting these two revanchist nations demands a different American military than the U.S. counterterrorism campaigns being waged in Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. Our defense structure needs new weapons and strengthened forces.
But a pell-mell retreat from Syria as well as Afghanistan could result in chaos in the immediate term. This conclusion, however, cannot postpone the inevitability of a pullback from distant insurgencies.
Leaving Syria to the tender mercies of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad regime could rejigger the eastern Mediterranean theater. Their competing interests renders the neighborhood as stable as a house of cards.
The United States lacks the resources to reconcile and democratize this violence-prone arena, as it did in post-World II Germany and Japan — the dream of many in the international relations establishment.
It is possible that Moscow, Tehran and Damascus will experience a falling out among their three cutthroat dictatorships, which managed to cooperate to preserve Assad’s rule. With the American military presence gone, the sharks may turn on each other. But there is no guarantee.
For sure, it will be a nontrivial undertaking to raise the $200 billion reconstruction funds for Syria. America will still have friends and allies in near proximity to Syria, which it must continue to help secure.
In the wake of a Syrian leave-taking, more effort will be needed for the defense and wellbeing of Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the friendly Persian Gulf states against the machinations and subversion of Iran.
Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author of "Eyes, Ears & Daggers: Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency in America’s Evolving Struggle against Terrorism."