On December 19, 2018, U.S. President Donald J. Trump gave the nation an early Christmas present by announcing that the war against Muslim terrorist organization ISIS had been won — meaning he would withdraw the 2,000 troops stationed there.
Trump tweeted the news that wintry Wednesday morning:
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
The news caught everyone by surprise. Those opposed to the idea claimed that removing U.S. troops from the war-torn Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nation would effectively deliver it into the hands of U.S. adversaries Russia and Iran. Both countries are friendly with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad who has held office since 2000.
Criticism over Trump’s seemingly-sudden decision to demilitarize Syria came swiftly from both sides of the congressional aisle. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top advisors, tweeted that such a move would be a “boost to ISIS” and that “Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake.”
But the U.S. President has been considering the Syrian pull-back for quite awhile. On April 3, 2018, Trump commented on Syria during a press conference:
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
Trump’s reasoning was largely economic. During the same press conference he revealed:
“We will have, as of three months ago, spent $7 trillion in the Middle East the last seven years. We get nothing out of it, nothing. Seven trillion dollars over a 17 year period, we have nothing — nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing. So it is time. It is time.”
Trump added that “sometimes it is time to come back home. And we’re thinking about this very seriously.”
At the time, U.S. officials reported that tens of thousands of ISIS militants had been killed. Only a residual force numbering no more than 3,000 Muslim fighters remained, isolated in two small parts of Syria near the border with Iraq. Extraction of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria was supposed to begin in the early fall of 2018.
But then, on August 30, news that ISIS forces were regaining strength in Syria altered that timetable. The Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General quarterly report to the U.S. Congress for 2018Q2 claimed that ISIS had 14,000 fighters in Syria, with as many as 17,000 in neighboring Iraq.
The Pentagon’s end-of-April 2018 report warned that ISI had grown from a feisty faction into a “covert global network, with a weakened yet enduring core” in Syria and Iraq that threatened U.N. member states on five continents.
Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, announced that U.S. troops would be “remaining in Syria” and that “this mission is ongoing.”
These reversals of foreign policy regarding the U.S. military presence in Syria explain why many observers were surprised by Trump’s December 19 announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, having effectively beaten ISIS there. Britan’s junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood sided with the Pentagon report’s findings when he tweeted:
“I strongly disagree. It [ISIS} has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”
Sarah Sanders, speaking for the White House, explained the new, year-end U.S. agenda regarding Syria:
“Five years ago, Isis was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate. We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
That same day, December 19, 2018, the U.S. State Department stated that all their personnel would be evacuated from Syria within 24 hours. All U.S. troops were expected to be withdrawn between 60 to 100 days later.
Trump himself explained that his decision was calculated rather than hasty. Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, had consulted by phone with the U.S. Commander-in-Chief. According to Trump, his proposed military pullback was collaborative with the Turks:
“Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call.”
On December 20, 2018, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis submitted his letter of resignation, effective February 28, 2019, to his boss, telling Trump “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
Three days later, on December 23, Brett McGurk announced that he, too, was quitting his post as special presidential envoy to Syria without waiting until the end of his tenure in February 2019. Eleven days previously, McGurk, who was appointed to his position in 2015 by former President Barack Obama, had said that Trump’s conclusion that ISIS had been defeated in Syria was “reckless” and U.S. troop withdrawal plans were completely unexpected:
“The recent decision by the president came as a shock and was a complete reversal of policy. It left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered with no plan in place or even considered thought as to consequences.”
According to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, the U.S. President brushed off McGurk’s resignation, saying “I have no idea who that person is. Never heard of him…until yesterday.”
Trump followed up with this tweet:
“We were originally going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago – we never left. When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”
On January 2, 2019, Trump again defended the Syrian troop withdrawal during a White House Cabinet meeting:
“We don’t want Syria. We’re talking about sand and death. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death.”
Trump explained that the U.S. would no longer do the dirty work for Russia and Iran by eliminating ISIS forces in Syria. Instead, the U.S. President intends to go forward with his plans to Make America Great Again (MAGA):
“We were supposed to be out of Syria many years ago. If you remember, we went to Syria for some spot hits, and that was five years ago, and we never left. I don’t want to be in Syria. I want to rebuild our country.”