Over the past 20 years, the American public has lost its appetite for fighting wars. After 9/11, the U.S. has pursued a series of costly, deadly and arguably unnecessary interventions. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, remain some of the most unpopular wars ever. Despite Obama’s promise to end America’s penchant for running into conflicts, he continued our presence and added a few more countries to the list of places we were bombing: Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, just to name a few.
The lack of public support for intervention explains Trump’s decision to pull all 2,000 troops out of Syria. It appeals to a persuasive sentiment – one that despises perpetual involvement in wars with no end in sight. Yet, the irony behind the decision to pull out is that it will likely guarantee that we stay longer than we originally intended.
In a tweet sent out the same day as the announcement to withdraw, Trump said that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Indeed, the U.S., along with its coalition partners, has made great strides – all but one percent of ISIS’ territory remains.
However, the fight against a terrorist group is about more than eliminating the space that they control.
More important is eliminating their ability to launch attacks and destabilize a country. A report from the Pentagon suggests we’re far from reaching that goal. As many as 17,100 fighters remain in Syria, and nearly 30,000 are in Iraq. For context, that is the same number of militants ISIS had at its peak strength in 2014.
If we pulled out now, we could risk giving ISIS the space it needs to regroup just as it is at the edge of defeat. In a Washington Post forum, Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “we’ve got to complete the training of local forces that can prevent ISIS from coming back.” Without U.S. airstrikes and constant support to pivotal groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces, ISIS may take advantage of the break in fire and execute a comeback.
This is hardly a hypothetical scenario. Trump himself criticized the U.S.’ decision to take troops out of Iraq, as it allowed for a vacuum to be filled by terrorist networks, one of which eventually became ISIS itself.
Beyond the military aspect, a pullout could inspire a wave of ISIS recruitment. It’s important to recognize the power ISIS’ propaganda campaigns have had. Unlike other militant groups, ISIS crafted a careful social media and messaging strategy that has successfully riled up anti-Western sentiments and persuaded disenfranchised young people to join their movement. This explains why they’ve taken so long to beat: support for their movement is rooted in a fundamental ideology.
Given that, think about the message pulling out sends to those who have resented America’s presence on the ground. ISIS can easily paint the pullout as a victory for their group and an admission of inferiority by the U.S., thus strengthening ISIS more. It fits directly into the false narrative they’ve been trying to spin: ISIS is winning, Western imperialism is losing.
If Trump’s goal is to end our military commitments when the mission has been completed, exiting Syria is the wrong answer. Leaving Syria will only allow ISIS to become stronger, meaning that we’re going to have to return to fight them when they do. The best thing the U.S. can do is commit to a full and absolute defeat of ISIS.
To do so, the U.S. needs to do two things:
First, it must keep its troop presence to continue keeping ISIS cornered. U.S. forces should also continue training local groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces and regional militaries to help continue the fight without us.
Second, it must ensure that Syria becomes a stable place following the end of the civil war. There are millions of civilians who have lost everything, including their homes and the communities they once knew. Whatever becomes of Syria must give people the opportunity to live with dignity. If the Syrian government doesn’t, terrorist organizations and rebel groups will offer pay and a place to sleep in exchange for their recruitment.
Nobody likes war, but we entered Syria with an intent to finish a mission. The integrity of the U.S. lies in our ability to see through the goal of ensuring peace and stability – leaving before the job is done jeopardizes not only our credibility but the livelihoods of those who are suffering on the ground.