Victoria Nuland is the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security and a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
With his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, President Trump hands a huge New Year’s gift to President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, the Kremlin and Tehran. He also guarantees the reversal of U.S. military gains there and extinguishes any leverage Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, may have to drive a diplomatic settlement that meets the administration’s own goals of keeping the Islamic State and Iran out. Most important, Trump falls into the same trap that President Barack Obama did when he withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Trump’s decision virtually ensures that security will disintegrate further, that the Islamic State and Iran will surge again, and that the United States will be compelled to come back into Syria at even greater military cost and in more adverse conditions than if we had stayed.
Everything about this mercurial decision imperils U.S. national interests as defined by Trump himself. First, the Islamic State is far from gone in Syria. Just six months ago, the Pentagon estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 fighters remained active in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State may no longer control vast swaths of Syrian territory, but its fighters are hiding in ungoverned pockets in the east and in the back alleys of Idlib. As soon as the United States withdraws, the Islamic State will make three moves. It will claim victory over the U.S. infidels, turbocharging a recruiting binge across the Middle East and South Asia. It will pour fresh fighters into eastern Syria. And it will come out of the shadows to retake territory across eastern Syria from the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which can’t hold Raqqa or any other cleared territory without continued U.S. help.
Iran will also flood the zone the United States is abandoning. Tehran has likely already given orders for some of the tens of thousands of Hezbollah militias it controls in western and southern Syria to turn east. Just three months ago, national security adviser John Bolton pledged that the United States would stay in Syria until every last Iranian fighter had been driven out. With one tweet Wednesday, the president has instead invited Tehran to deepen its military, political and economic grip on this vital piece of the Middle East. In the process, Iran will also gain control of the major oil fields in Deir al-Zour protected by U.S. forces and the SDF, allowing it to self-finance its land grab.