By Arab News
By Ellen R. Wald*
Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump shook the establishment in Washington by announcing that he would do exactly what he had promised during his campaign. He declared that American military service members would be leaving Syria. As Trump explained: “We have defeated (Daesh) in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”
With this, the American media, politicians and the defense establishment flew into a rage.
First, some background. The US has about 2,000 military service members in Syria. They are prohibited from combat roles, though their work there has not been clearly defined for the American people.
According to a law called the War Powers Resolution, a president must seek authorization from Congress to use military force in combat. In 2013, President Barack Obama asked Congress for the authorization to use military force in Syria to aid rebels fighting Bashar Assad. The US government, under Obama, was already providing aid and training to rebels. Congress refused Obama’s request and instead passed an authorization for the Defense Department to provide training and assistance to “appropriately vetted” rebels. The authorization explicitly prohibits the use of American troops in combat in Syria.
Nevertheless, American service members were sent to Syria during Obama’s second term, and they have remained there under Trump. For some, the small number of troops providing training and support is reminiscent of similar American involvement in past conflicts, most notably Vietnam. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy sent 500 Army Special Forces to train South Vietnamese soldiers. By 1973, when the US involvement in Vietnam ended in defeat, more than 58,000 American service members had been killed.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called for America to leave Syria. He was clear from the start that his objective was to defeat Daesh, and he even talked about partnering with Russia or others to do this. However, Trump never indicated that he would keep soldiers in Syria to fight Assad, protect Kurds or counteract Turkey, Russia or Iran.
When he made the Syria withdrawal announcement, there was clear shock and fear emanating from the loudest voices in Washington. On cable news channels, from CNN to Fox, pundits said this would be a disaster. They said the absence of this small American force — which was legally prohibited from combat — would allow Iran to build a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea. They said it would empower Assad to punish his people with more chemical weapons. They said it would embolden Russia to influence Syria (which it already does). They said it would be a signal to Turkey that it could invade Syria to massacre Kurds. They said it would endanger Israel (though Israel fights its own battles in Syria, and the US was not engaging against Hezbollah anyway).
Politicians on Capitol Hill, including Trump’s fellow Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, also excoriated him for the decision. The politicians criticized the way he made the decision, in addition to the call itself, saying Trump did not consult with them or the military sufficiently. The same Congress that refused to allow Americans to enter combat in Syria five years ago became angered that the president did not receive consent from Congress to bring American soldiers home.
The defense establishment was also furious. Trump’s decision was widely criticized by former generals, think tank analysts who have never held a gun, and seasoned warriors. Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, resigned as Secretary of Defense. Dan Crenshaw, a wildly popular Congressman-elect from Texas, also criticized the decision. Crenshaw’s views hold a little more weight for many because he was wounded as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan. His argument was that: “We go there so that they don’t come here.” In other words, Americans fight Daesh in Syria so Daesh doesn’t come to the US. On the other hand, Trump has access to the most intelligence information and he seems convinced the battle against Daesh in Syria is won.
To many Americans, the incessant criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria seems disingenuous. Trump supporters argued first that any decision he makes will face opposition within Washington simply because they oppose everything he does, says or proposes. The second argument was that Washington — media, generals and think tanks alike — desire war because it is good for their business. So many people in the capital make money out of war and they are scared that Trump will minimize US combat (in fact, soon after the Syria announcement, Trump announced that he will be ordering the return of more troops currently in Afghanistan).
Trump does not see the US as the only country capable of calming unstable situations around the world. Saudi Arabia has pledged assistance in Syria, and Trump pointed to this as an example of a regional partner participating in regional issues. Israel continues to hamper Iran’s ambitions in Syria with bombing missions and the demolition of Hezbollah tunnels. In Trump’s estimation, if there is a role for outside forces in Syria, it need not necessarily be filled by the US.
Americans outside of the Washington establishment are tired of sending young men and women into war zones. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks against the US, the American military has suffered almost 6,000 combat fatalities and almost 60,000 wounded, not to mention the psychological issues faced by returning soldiers. The American populace is tired of fighting wars at the other end of the world. Washington may have an unsatiated appetite for fighting, but America prefers to bring its soldiers home.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy