Syria, one of the most dangerous places in the world, got more dangerous the moment President Trump abruptly announced the imminent pullout of American troops. The deaths of four Americans Wednesday provided tragic new evidence of just how foolhardy the president’s decision was.
ISIS — yes, the same terrorist group Trump insisted had been vanquished from the region — claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in the northern town of Manbij that took the lives of two American troops and two civilians who were among 16 people killed.
The attack came while the troops were out on a routine patrol near the central market in the Kurdish-held town. It came a week after the United States began withdrawing some military ground equipment from Syria.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president tweeted back in December after announcing his intention to pull out the 2,000 American troops serving there. The coalition aimed at defeating the Islamic State had indeed been successful in robbing the would-be caliphate of much of the territory it had laid claim to.
But military officials knew then — and certainly will confirm now — that ISIS is far from defeated.
The problem remains what it has been from the start. As US Representative Seth Moulton, who served as a Marine in the Middle East, told the Globe’s editorial board earlier this week: “The president does not have a strategy for Syria. . . . The conflict in Syria is a terrible mess, but even worse would be to bring the troops back prematurely.”
Moulton said he wants to bring troops home, “but I want to do it as part of a serious strategy that means they can actually stay home once they get here.”
The Trump “strategy” — such as it is — reportedly was hatched during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an autocrat of the first order who would like nothing better than to have US troops out of the way as he launches military action against the Kurds.
Cheering encouragement of the US withdrawal from the sidelines was Russian President Vladimir Putin, a supporter of Syria’s despotic leader Bashar al-Assad. Putin wants desperately to assure his foothold in the region.
So with one ill-advised move, Trump made three autocrats exceedingly happy, sold out our allies the Kurds, and made the Middle East a far more dangerous place.
Is it any wonder that recently departed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wanted no part of this era of mass confusion, noting in his letter of resignation, “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
He cited both the 74-nation “Defeat ISIS” coalition and NATO, which Trump has also threatened several times with a US pull-out.
Absent any coherent strategy from the president, national security adviser John Bolton has insisted to allies that no troops will be withdrawn until there are guarantees of safety for America’s Kurdish allies and assurances that ISIS is indeed defeated.
This latest attack is surely evidence that those conditions are unlikely to be met in the near future. American troops shouldn’t stay in Syria forever, but this is the wrong time and the wrong way to pull them out.