The erratic and bombastic Donald Trump pulls one surprise after another from his bag of tricks.
In December, the US president announced that the United States, having defeated the Islamic State organization, would unilaterally withdraw its contingent of 2,000 troops from Syria. Trump’s announcement surprised, among others, the head of the U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, who oversees military operations in the Middle East. “I was not consulted,” he told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
Earlier this month, Trump did it again. In yet another bolt from the blue, he said that U.S. forces in Iraq, comprising 5,200 soldiers, would be used to carry out surveillance of Iran — a destabilizing force in the region — and to respond to developments in neighboring Syria.
In a reference to the Al Assad air base in western Iraq, which he visited almost two months ago, Trump said, “We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.”
Trump blundered in both instances, exposing himself as a rank amateur in the practice of foreign policy.
Trump’s hasty decision to pull out of Syria, a nation which has been embroiled in a civil war since 2011, doubtless won him sardonic praise in Russia and Iran, both of which support the totalitarian Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
But within his own administration, the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as in Israel, Trump’s ill-considered policy came under intense criticism.
Trump’s secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, resigned, saying Trump had committed a strategic blunder. The US Senate, in a bipartisan motion, warned that an abrupt withdrawal could destabilize the Middle East and benefit only Russia and Iran. Israel expressed concern that a pullout would embolden Iran, its arch enemy, which is busy entrenching itself militarily in Syria.
The outcry, which caught the Trump administration off guard, prompted White House officials to explain that the controversial withdrawal would not take place within 30 days, as Trump had initially said, but rather within four months. On February 11, Votel said the withdrawal would probably begin within weeks and would be “driven by the situation on the ground.”
What Votel presumably meant is that it will be completed as scheduled once Islamic State fighters have been ousted from their last stronghold in eastern Syria, an outcome that seems likely within the next few weeks.
It is true that Islamic State’s much-vaunted caliphate, which once controlled 34,000 square miles, or one-third of the land mass in Syria and Iraq, has been destroyed. But in a warning issued last week, Votel said, “It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against (Islamic State) and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed.”
Votel added that “hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against a now largely dispersed and disaggregated (Islamic State) that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”
And as the Pentagon noted in a report on February 4, Islamic State has begun regrouping. The report went on to say that, unless sustained military pressure is exerted on Islamic State, it “could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory.”
Which is why Trump should seriously reconsider his planned withdrawal from Syria.
As Votel told the Senate, the United States’ focus in Iraq is not to confront Iran, but to crush the remnants of Islamic State and to counter a renewed insurgency. As well, the United States, in keeping with its determination to impose fresh economic sanctions on Iran, wants Iraq to stop purchasing Iranian oil and gas.
Judging by the backlash that greeted Trump’s remarks, Iraqi leaders are none too keen to ruffle Iran’s feathers.
“Trump did not ask Iraq’s permission to ‘watch’ Iran,” Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, said. “Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues.” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was just as emphatic: “Iraq should not be a part of any conflicts between other countries. We do not agree with the recent US statements.” The deputy speaker of parliament, Hassan al-Kaabi, said that Trump’s comments were a violation of the Iraqi constitution.
Some Iraqi politicians have gone beyond these critiques, having called for restrictions on the number of US troops that can be stationed in Iraq, the activities they engage in, and the length of their stay. The acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick M. Shanahan, arrived in Iraq today to discuss these demands.
On balance, it’s clear that Trump spoke out of turn with his premature and unhelpful comments on Syria and Iraq. The complex problems that afflict these countries cannot be solved by superficial means.