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Trump’s big (non)decision on US troops in Syria, explained

Trump could change his mind in the future.

US-backed forces in Syria driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
US-backed forces in Syria driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump just made a big decision on Syria — that doesn’t really seem to change a whole lot, at least for now.

As the Washington Post reports, Trump told military leaders on Tuesday to prepare for a withdrawal from Syria, although he did not set an official return date. But per NBC News, Trump decided to allow the approximately 2,000 troops in Syria to stay there until ISIS is defeated, even though he was unhappy about it.

In a statement after the press reports, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted that “the military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end,” but did not mention concrete plans for an imminent withdrawal.

So, to be clear: Trump is fine with US troops remaining in Syria to vanquish the terrorist group. The question is whether Trump will want US troops to stay in Syria after ISIS’s defeat to help rebuild the country.

Right now, it doesn’t look that way. “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said during a White House press conference alongside Baltic leaders on Tuesday, capping a months-long effort to remove US troops from Syria.

But top military and diplomatic officials unanimously disagreed with Trump, a source familiar with the discussions told me. Trump contends US troops could come home because ISIS is essentially defeated; the officials say they need to remain in Syria to ensure ISIS loses and can’t reemerge.

That private disagreement spilled out into the open around the same time as Trump’s Tuesday comments. Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads US forces in the Middle East, told a Washington audience at the US Institute of Peace on Tuesday that “a lot of very good military progress has been made [against ISIS] over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”

He also noted that the military had a role in “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction.” For Votel, that mostly means helping Syrians who fled their homes during the fighting return to improved living conditions.

Brett McGurk, who is in charge of the US-led anti-ISIS diplomatic effort, made a similar case. “We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission. That mission isn’t over. And we’re going to complete that mission,” he said at the same event.

The contradictory stances on the role of US forces in Syria caught US officials by surprise. But Votel and McGurk’s comments might presage a possible broader fight between Trump and his administration, particularly the Pentagon. For example, it’s possible American commanders could slow-roll a troop withdrawal from Syria against the president’s wishes. In a meeting on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly told Trump that the US was already removing troops from Syria and would continue that practice. That argument, among others, apparently mollified Trump.

Put together, this is not a policy change. US forces will remain in Syria to defeat ISIS, which is why Trump kept them there in the first place after President Barack Obama sent them in. All that’s new in any way is that Trump wants the military to prepare for bringing troops home, something the military certainly planned for already.

So it seems like Trump has listened to his advisers — for now. The question is, how long will he stick with that decision?

The perils of removing US troops from Syria, explained

Simply put, removing all US troops from Syria at this point would be a bad move.

On a larger scale, it would all but assure President Bashar al-Assad victory in Syria. And Assad’s allies — particularly Russia and Iran — would also have more space to set up military bases, as well as fund and arm terrorist groups in the country. In effect, America’s years-long gains in Syria would go away almost overnight.

“Completely abdicating any involvement [in Syria] gives those that we don’t want involved a green light,” says Shanna Kirschner, a Syria expert at Allegheny College.

Removing US troops would also signal to America’s allies in the anti-ISIS fight that the US has abandoned them. The US works with Syrian Kurds to defeat ISIS, but a withdrawal of American forces would leave them alone to battle against Turkey, a NATO ally that has fought a decades-long insurgency against Kurdish separatists in its own country. Syrian Kurds are currently located near the Syria-Turkey border, and Ankara considers Kurdish forces to be a looming terrorist threat.

But there’s a greater irony: Removing US troops soon could ensure ISIS, well, doesn’t go away. If ISIS is not truly defeated, then we might get pulled back in,” Kirschner told me. So if Trump does pull US troops out of Syria soon, he may have to send US troops back into the country if ISIS reemerges.

Recall that Trump consistently bashed Obama during the 2016 presidential campaign for removing US troops from Iraq, claiming that the move led to the rise of ISIS. (He also said his administration would never telegraph any of America’s military plans — but his demand to start planning for a troop withdrawal does just that.)

Last month, US troops spoke out about the need to continue the anti-ISIS fight. “We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close to total victory, to wiping out the ISIS caliphate in Syria,” an unnamed US special forces commander told NBC News on March 30. “We’re that close and now it’s coming apart.”

Put together, Trump could empower America’s adversaries, hurt its friends, and possibly doom the US to yet another fight against ISIS should he decide to remove US troops from Syria soon. That’s why Middle East experts, like former top Pentagon official Mara Karlin, think it would be a bad idea: “Pulling [troops] out precipitously doesn’t make any sense.”