In the last days it has been confidently reported that the U.S. will withdraw all of its forces from Syria—effectively handing the country over to Russia and Iran, except for a small portion that might remain under Turkish influence. The president himself declared on Twitter, “We have defeated Islamic State in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” But, writes Noah Rothman, Islamic State (IS) is not defeated, and a precipitous American withdrawal will likely have the same consequences as Barack Obama’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq:
[Islamic State] maintains a stronghold in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and regularly exports terrorism [to other parts of Syria, as well as to] Iraq and elsewhere in the region. As recently as late November, coalition forces “repelled a coordinated attack by IS elements” near Deir ez-Zour. American forces conducted over 200 air and artillery strikes in Syria between December 8 and 15 alone.
Though the mission’s deputy commanding general insists that the estimated 2,000 IS forces operating in the area are “not enough” to make “significant or lasting gains,” Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria are poised to reconstitute their forces in rural and remote areas where they represent the only stabilizing sources of authority. . . .
Almost exactly seven years ago, another president executed another popular withdrawal of Americans soldiers from a fragile post-conflict country. Then as now, that country’s central government did not have total control over [all of its territory] and the political consensus necessary to preserve the peace did not exist, but none of that mattered at the time. There were campaign-trail promises to fulfill. Not three years later, American troops were back on the ground in Iraq expending precious blood and treasure to reclaim ground they’d held only months earlier. Conditions in Syria are far less stable than they were in Iraq when IS poured over the border, capturing ancient cities and routing Iraqi forces.
We may soon find ourselves back in Syria, too. And if history repeats, it will be when our hands are forced amid a terrible reckoning with the mistake we made today.