Syria Withdrawal: Experts Weigh In

Yesterday, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing troops from Syria.  Below, NSI experts weigh in on the potential outcomes of this move and the future of the region. 

December 20, 2018

Matthew R. A. Heiman – NSI Associate Director of Global Security and Senior Fellow; Former Lawyer, National Security Division, U.S. Department of Justice and the Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad, Iraq

“President Trump threatened to withdraw forces from Syria before, and his advisors appeared to have talked him out of it.  This time, they weren’t as persuasive.  This is a bad result for the U.S. and the Middle East for the following reasons: Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime will fill the void created by the U.S. departure; the job of destroying ISIS was not yet complete; and the U.S. pushback against Iran looks fairly toothless.  The Middle East is not a safer place and U.S. interests are not served by this move.  Let’s hope the President changes his mind.

Jamil N. Jaffer – NSI Founder

“The President’s decision to precipitously withdraw U.S. troops from Syria is a catastrophic mistake of historic proportions.  In addition to handing Russia and Iran a major victory in a region critical to our national security, the President’s decision actually snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing ISIS the chance to rapidly reestablish the very bases and infrastructure that we spent years working to destroy and sacrificing American lives in the process.  In many ways, this decision puts the President squarely in line with decisions of the prior Administration that he has, in the past, mocked as being weak and irresolute.

Even worse, yesterday’s decision—announced on Twitter with apparently little serious discussions at senior levels within the Administration—suggests to our allies that the United States is not prepared to see its military efforts through to completion.

The President’s announcement of victory against ISIS notwithstanding, the reality is that America and our allies continue to face serious threats coming from the Middle East, including from ISIS, which, while it is certainly back on its heels, is far from defeated.  Indeed, the rapid removal of American troops from Syria means that the immediate threat of terrorist attacks against Americans around the world, including here at home, will increase overnight, with groups like ISIS and al Qaeda becoming emboldened by America’s abandonment of our serious campaign against them in the region.

Other threats from the region are also likely to get worse as a result of President Trump’s policy shift.  These threats include the Iranian regime’s support of terrorism around the world through proxy groups like Hezbollah, which is also directly responsible for keeping the Assad regime in power in Syria, the rise of Russian military activity across the region and its undermining of American influence with key actors, the targeting of key American allies in the conflict against ISIS and al Qaeda, and the potential economic chaos that could result from increased instability in the region.

In sum, leaving this fight behind and abandoning our allies in the region is a step in exactly the wrong direction.”

Lester Munson – NSI Senior Fellow; Former Staff Director, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

“In Jim Mattis, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the President has an excellent national security team.  He should listen to them and reverse his decision to abandon Syria to Iran, Russia and Bashar Assad. Removing American forces now will dramatically increase the likelihood that Syria will descend further into chaos and negatively impact American allies in the Middle East and Europe.”



David Priess – NSI Visiting Fellow; Chief Operating Officer, Lawfare

“Whatever one thinks of the merits of abruptly pulling US forces out of the continued fight against ISIS in Syria, it’s hard to deny that the way in which this appears to have been decided and announced surprised national security officials at all levels — and left them ill-prepared to execute or even explain the sudden change in policy. Generally, the interagency process allows all of the pros and cons of policy options — ranging from their tactical implications to their impact on America’s alliance relationships — to be hashed out. Even officials who had argued against the ultimate decision thus understand, and are prepared to help implement, policy change.

Having participated in many interagency meetings at various levels while at CIA and at the State Department, I recall all too clearly how laborious and frustrating the interagency process can be. But there’s a reason for that process: to avoid an unforced error like this one.”

and frustrating the interagency process can be. But there’s a reason for that process: to avoid an unforced error like this one.”

Alicia Sloan – NSI Visiting Fellow; Co-Founder, Duco Experts
“Bringing our servicemen and women home from conflict should always be our North Star. However, this announcement of victory over ISIS underscores how naive the President is as it relates to how non-state actors work, and yes, make come backs. What’s more, the message to our allies is: if you want an ally in the long term, it doesn’t pay to link up with the United States. Try Russia and Iran instead (although this blame doesn’t lie solely on President Trump).”



Glenn Sulmasy – NSI Visiting Fellow; Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Bryant University

“This is a bold and courageous decision by President Trump.  The Syrian issue remains chaotic – a mess.  The decision to get our troops out of that very chaos will preserve American lives and prevent us becoming further  entrenched within this growing debacle.  Keeping our troops in Afghanistan has done little to achieve any final victory over the Taliban or al-Qaeda.  There is little sense in putting American troops in a region that is increasingly becoming lawless without any clear cut path to a traditional ‘victory.’

There is no question that the troops who have been stationed there are relieved, and their families are delighted to get this welcome Christmas gift. This is a true victory for  the traditional, realpolitik, conservative national security policy.”

Dan Wagner – NSI Visiting Fellow; Legislative Liaison, U.S. Special Operations Command

“If there is any U.S. leader that can create a ‘winning’ narrative from getting out of Syria, it is President Donald Trump.  Right, wrong or indifferent, he has unabashedly made the decision from his gut, against the sage advice of his senior cabinet officials.  The decision was likely based on money and weighing the immediate benefit to the American voter.  This is how he will be able to turn this situation into a winning narrative with the voters, regardless of the long-term impacts amongst the coalition partners and in the Middle East.

That said the U.S. strategy has been one of an endless combination of counterterrorism as well as nation building.  It has been a losing strategy over the last 18 years of entering a country to eradicate the threat to the homeland and then become entangled in the quagmire of regional politics, while building the government back up again. Trump would argue that it is time to make others take ownership of the issues within their region. Others will argue that the U.S. broke it [Syria] and now they need to fix it.  However, others still will argue that it has been proven that no amount of money will fix the problem and the U.S. has a terrible track record for fixing nations.

There are real concerns about Russia and Iran gaining a strong foothold in Syria and thereby increasing their influence in the region.  It may also force them to take ownership of this problem, as ongoing issues in Syria will ultimately affect anything they want to accomplish in the long run.  There is a chance that it will force both countries to pour money and resources into Syria to fill the gap left by the U.S. and experience similar frustrating challenges.  If this were to happen, it would focus energy on a new problem for each of them, rather than on the U.S. directly.

The conflict in Syria is unsustainable indefinitely, and it is clear that there is no real strategy other than what we have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq – which is to continue to throw money and U.S. blood at the problem.  Is ISIS truly defeated?  That remains to be seen.  Part of this Syrian retrograde cannot be to allow ISIS to regenerate.  The U.S. will likely need to force Syria (and Russia by proxy) to take ownership of their country.  It is only a matter of time until Afghanistan will follow suit as well.

President Trump does not have a great track record for truly caring about U.S. Soldiers.  However he does care about votes and money, and declaring victory against ISIS fits his narrative of both “winning” and “putting America first”.  Whatever the reasoning for the President to order pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, it is going to cause uncertain outcomes in that region (Syria, Turkey, Iran, Israel) and with coalition partners (including the Kurds).  However, that should only be slightly less comforting than a strategy of sustaining the same levels of funding and cost of U.S. lives indefinitely.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this analysis are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Security Institute or any agency of the U.S. government. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the National Security Institute or any U.S. government entity.