Donald Trump has shocked the allies of the US and even his cabal with the incredibly presumptuous claim that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been defeated and hence the order to effect what he calls a “full and rapid withdrawal” of over 2,000 US troops in Syria.
The Caliphate may be down, but is almost certainly not out. In the week of jollity around the world, Wednesday’s announcement by the US President signifies an abrupt change in policy that was unveiled six months ago, notably with three objectives ~ to retain US forces in Syria, to endure the “enduring defeat of ISIS”, and act as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
The second and third parameters are yet to be fully achieved. The change in course or U-turn, if you will, has bamboozled the pivotal entities of the Pentagon and State Department.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” was the US President’s proud boast. If the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan (2014) is any indication, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria could be headed for another bout of disaster. There is no support quite yet for the outward march of boots on the ground. On closer reflection, Taliban and ISIS are different labels of fanatical fury.
Trump’s claim is at odds with his own administration’s assessments not the least in August this year when the Pentagon assessed there were still as many as 14,500 ISIS warriors in Syria. It is an irony of geopolitics that ISIS had claimed responsibility for an attack on its former stronghold of Raqqa only minutes before Mr Trump’s tweet proclaiming victory. It is hard not to wonder whether he has given the short shrift to intelligence assessments.
Markedly, the response of the White House spokesperson was more nuanced ~ “Troop withdrawal marked the start of the “next phase” in the struggle with ISIS, and the US force could return if necessary,” was the reaction of Sarah Sanders. The subtext of the administration’s reaction generally must be that ISIS is yet to be defeated.
More accurately, it is said to have morphed into different brands of extremism that are no less hideous that the repressive regime of Assad which soldiers on with the tacit support of the US and Russia. The administration’s reservations are palpable enough. Reports suggest that behind the scenes, the Pentagon leadership is still trying to persuade the President to accept a “managed, more gradual withdrawal”.
Notably, the outgoing chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, was due to meet Mr Trump, but the meeting was cancelled without explanation at the last minute. This is suggestive of a critical dissonance. For the comity of nations no less, it is equally hard to imagine that a Head of State can afford so reckless a gamble.