The decision appeared to blindside his own administration and America’s coalition partners who are also fighting ISIS in Syria. The news drew bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers — notably Republican senators including Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio — blasted Trump’s move, calling it a “major blunder” (Rubio) that essentially handed the country to Russia and Iran (Graham).
So how has Trump responded? By defending his decision in a series of Thursday morning tweets, of course.
Trump tweeted that he was fulfilling a campaign promise, and that despite evidence to the contrary, Iran, Russia, and Syria are actually upset that the US is leaving, as those countries are now left to fight ISIS on their own.
“Getting out of Syria was no surprise,” Trump wrote. “I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer.” He added that Russia, Iran, and Syria “& others are the local enemy of ISIS” and the US was “doing there [sic] work.”
Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
He followed that by lamenting the US’s status as “Policeman of the Middle East,” with nothing to show for it:
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.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
....Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
There’s a lot to unpack here
To start with, Trump has long wanted to pull US troops out of Syria, and he campaigned publicly on that promise. Since taking office, he’s continued to express that sentiment, even abruptly saying at a March rally that the US would be leaving Syria “very soon,” contrary to what the State Department and the Pentagon had previously signaled.
ISIS has seen its territory shrink dramatically with US military intervention, but it is far from defeated. As many as 17,100 fighters remain in Syria, and about 30,000 in both Syria and Iraq, which is close to the terror group’s 2014 peak.
And beyond ISIS, many experts fear the vacuum the US will leave behind will allow Iran, Russia, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to basically operate unrestrained in the country. Both Russia and Iran are backing Assad in his brutal civil war, and Iran in particular is consolidating its power in Syria through proxies and militias it supports.
Rather than seceding the ISIS fight to Iran or Russia, as Trump claims, many experts worry the US is handing them an easy win to cement their influence in the region and help them achieve longer-term gains.
Which is why, as Graham said, they’re “ECSTATIC” about Trump’s decision to withdraw. The senator added in a follow-up tweet that he did not think it was “wise” to outsource the fight against ISIS to Russia, Iran, and Syria because they “do not have America’s best interests at heart.”
It is not FAKE NEWS that Russia, Iran, and Assad are unhappy about our decision to withdraw from Syria.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 20, 2018
They are ECSTATIC! https://t.co/7cZgEDBbdT
Indeed, far from being “fake news,” Russia literally said it was happy about the US’s decision to leave, saying it creates “good prospects for a political solution” — which sounds a lot like a euphemism for Assad maintaining his grip on power.
Even more bizarre about Trump’s statements: He’s made defeating Iran and its influence a central component of his foreign policy. Iran wants to establish a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean that it can exploit to better threaten Israel, but the US presence in Syria has somewhat foiled its advance.
The Trump administration has previously stated that it wants to remove Iran from the battlefield in Syria — but as Vox’s Alex Ward writes, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops “makes any success against Iran in Syria even less likely.”