Trump’s Syria exit is dangerous and foolish

Only Iran, Russia and Turkey stand to benefit from a move that will exacerbate the conflict

FILE - In this June 7, 2017, file photo, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition against IS, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq. The Trump administration will keep open the State Department unit overseeing the fight against the Islamic State group for at least six more months, reversing a plan for its imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump pushes ahead with moves for a speedy U.S. exit from Syria. McGurk, is now expected to remain in his job at least through the end of the year. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
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In May 2003, then US president George W Bush, addressing a crowd on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. Behind him hung an enormous banner that read “mission accomplished”. US troops would not leave for another eight years while the banner itself became a symbol of flawed American policy in the Middle East.

Donald Trump has just had his "mission accomplished" moment. With flagrant disregard for the views of his advisers, the Pentagon, the State Department and US allies across the world, Mr Trump announced Washington would immediately begin withdrawing its 2,000 troops from Syria. "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there," he tweeted. It sparked commotion in America's foreign policy establishment to settle nerves and regain control of the narrative.

But the damage was already done. As the Mueller investigation uncovers more scandal and controversy engulfs his administration, Mr Trump is desperate for positive headlines. But this move is dangerous and ill-conceived. Its implications, nearly eight years into a war that has killed half a million people and been co-opted by self-interested world powers, will be profound.

Geopolitical implications aside, the notion that ISIS has been defeated rings hollow. While the group has lost virtually all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, it still has an estimated 20,000 loyal fighters on the ground and the capacity to cause immense bloodshed. This week, it emerged that the group had slaughtered nearly 700 prisoners in the past two months in eastern Syria.

Mr Trump’s tweet follows an ominous statement from the US special envoy for ISIS, Brett McGurk who said “nobody is declaring a mission accomplished”. His comments were echoed by Britain following Mr Trump’s tweet. “We must not lose sight of the threat they pose,” said a UK government spokesperson. “Even without territory, [ISIS] will remain a threat.

Ultimately though, only Iran, Russia and Turkey will benefit from this decision. The primary motivation for remaining engaged in Syria – reaffirmed by US national security adviser John Bolton last month – was to restrain Iran and its proxies. With the US gone, an emboldened Tehran will be able to carve out territory and influence in Syria and continue its relentless march to regional hegemony.

Meanwhile Russia, which has kept Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in power, will be able to dictate the country's future. The YPG, a US-backed Kurdish militia, which fought bravely to defeat ISIS, will now be at the mercy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose worst excesses have been curbed by fears of a direct confrontation with the US.

Yesterday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani travelled to Ankara, as the three chief antagonists in Syria's war set about fortifying their ties and sharing the spoils of a devastating war.

The Syrian war has become a playground for self-interested world powers. By announcing a unilateral, unplanned departure, Mr Trump has emboldened the very actors exacerbating the conflict and increased the risk to the innocent and vulnerable, who have yet another reason to fear the future.