Opinion

A slow withdrawal from Syria isn't responsible. It's reckless.

Why Trump's newfound interest in a slow withdrawal is a red flag, no matter what Lindsey Graham says

Here is a good rule of thumb: If Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) expresses personal comfort with the timeline for a planned withdrawal from any of the United States' various wars, it is safe to assume the "withdrawal" label has become a misnomer.

Such may be the case with President Trump's planned exit from Syria. Trump himself has changed his framing of the proposal since its announcement last month, tweeting Monday that he would be "slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting [Islamic State] remnants." This suggests a markedly different timeline than that conjured by Trump tweets from a week or two prior, which envisioned American soldiers leaving forthwith while regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia took up the task of moving Syria toward some sort of stability.

Trump's newfound interest in a slow withdrawal is substantial enough to have mollified Graham, who told The New York Times Sunday he feels "a lot better" after discussing it with the president over lunch. "I think we're in a pause situation where we are re-evaluating what's the best way to achieve the president's objective of having [other nations] pay more and do more," Graham said. "He promised to destroy ISIS. He's going to keep that promise. We're not there yet, but as I said today, we're inside the 10-yard line, and the president understands the need to finish the job."

This is vague enough to mean almost anything — except a timely exit of American military personnel from Syrian territory — and tweeted comments from Graham Sunday night offered some clarity but no consolation. Trump "will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will be done in a fashion to ensure: 1) ISIS is permanently destroyed. 2) Iran doesn't fill in the back end, and 3) our Kurdish allies are protected," Graham wrote.

If true, this means Trump no longer has any intention of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria any time soon. It means he's continuing to boast of fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw while setting conditions broad enough to excuse permanent occupation and endless permutations of the United States' mission. It means our withdrawal from Syria has been slow-walked into oblivion.

That would be a grave mistake. Yes, there's room for disagreement on the merits of Trump's withdrawal process. Harvard's Stephen M. Walt at Foreign Policy faulted the president for failing to use the planned exit as diplomatic leverage to push for peace and for seemingly giving "no advance warning or interagency preparation for the decision, which means that the timing, arrangements, and broader implications have not been gamed out in advance." Still, Walt correctly judges the move to be "the right thing" even if done in "the wrong way."

Bringing American troops home from Syria — a conflict in which we never should have intervened in the first place — is necessary, prudent, and overdue. Trump's initially impulsive execution does not negate that fact. But committing to staying in Syria in pursuit of the objectives Graham listed will negate any possibility of an actual exit in the foreseeable future.

His first item — the permanent destruction of ISIS — is a fine specimen of the misleading simplicity on which mission creep thrives. The Islamic State's remaining institutional structure may be dismantled, but the radical ideas and anger that animated it will not die. Whether lingering on under the same name but in a different form or reconstituted under some fresh militant banner, the problem ISIS embodies will not be eradicated by keeping a couple thousand American troops in Syria. Aiming to stay in Syria until "ISIS is permanently destroyed" functionally means staying in Syria indefinitely. It is Zeno's paradox in battle — there will always be a little further to go, a little more to do.

Countering Iranian (and, by extension, Russian) influence is a similarly open-ended objective, but one that comes with far greater risk to U.S. security. Where ISIS has never posed any existential threat to the United States, great power conflict would. Moscow and Tehran have far higher stakes in Syria than does Washington; they will not easily be cowed into abandoning their influence there. Proximity and the chance of miscalculation thus create a dangerously fragile situation, even if everyone is on their best behavior. U.S. entrenchment inherently risks escalation.

Graham's third objective of protecting America's Kurdish allies may be the most convoluted of the lot. It too would delay U.S. exit from Syria sine die and further entangle the United States in Mideast war forever. But it also has the strange distinction of pitting us against ourselves, supporting the U.S.-partnered Kurds against enemies including U.S.-partnered Turkey. As The Week's Damon Linker has asked, do we really plan to place "ourselves on a collision course with a NATO ally over the political status of a trans-national ethnic group in a region 4,000 miles from our border?"

Slowing U.S. exit from Syria to a veritable standstill is not a responsible or moderate course, whatever Graham and his ilk may claim. It is a reckless double down on the foreign policy failures of the last two decades, a recommitment to an interminable fight which offers real risks and only a phantasm of reward.

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