Statement: President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria is in America’s interest

December 19, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC—President Trump today announced his decision to pull more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria following the end of the mission to destroy the “caliphate” of the Islamic State. In response, Defense Priorities Senior Fellow and Defense Scholar Benjamin H. Friedman issued the following statement:

“President Trump’s announced decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria is good news. The last town held by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria fell to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces last week, so the ’caliphate’ it once held is almost entirely eliminated. The goal that got U.S. forces into Syria is essentially achieved.

“The fact that none of his top security advisors seem to agree with his decision suggests the president needs better security advice. President Trump could use security advisors who are less eager to start new wars and more willing to implement his decisions to end them.

“No national security interest justifies U.S. forces to remain in Syria, just a series of bad arguments offered by proponents of indefinite involvement in its civil war: ensuring ISIS’s ’enduring’ defeat, battling Russia or Iran for influence, and U.S. allegiance to the SDF and other rebels we backed there. But with the main goal achieved, the risks of keeping forces there—starting with the possibility of war Russia, Iran, or even NATO ally Turkey—badly outweigh any potential benefits. Nothing in Syria is worth these risks.

“The difference between the stated mission to defeat ISIS and the ’enduring’ sort is that the latter invites further mission creep into the failed nation-building missions we’ve tried elsewhere.

“Keeping forces in Syria to balance Russia or compete with Iran risks war with one of those states, which would be disastrous. Both were invited there by the Assad regime and both have longstanding and enduring interests in Syria, unlike the United States.

“Syria offers occupiers lots of potential trouble and nothing that can vault them to greater power. Leaving our enemies with the draining task of trying to stabilize Syria is hardly a favor to them.

“It’s true that a U.S. withdrawal will make things harder for the SDF, the primarily Kurdish force that led the fight against ISIS and is strongly opposed by Turkey. U.S. officials can try to broker their safety from Turkish attack and encourage efforts to negotiate an accommodation with the Assad regime. But U.S. forces were sent into Syria to defeat ISIS, not to guarantee Kurdish autonomy. We do not owe them indefinite protection.

“Keep in mind that Congress never authorized President Obama's decision to deploy troops to Syria in the first place. And Congress has not used oversight power to interrogate the shifting rationales for continuing it.”