Dec 19, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Trump allies and Republicans are questioning his Syria exit

Mattis looking at Trump

Defense Secretary James Mattis and President Trump. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump's order to begin pulling U.S. troops from Syria within the next 30 days drew pushback from Republicans, foreign allies and even officials within his own administration on Wednesday.

The big picture: Trump's claim that the U.S. has "defeated" the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria — which he called his "only reason" for remaining in the war — flies in the face of assessments by both the State Department and the Defense Department. Just last week, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, said in a speech, "Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative. Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished."

What they're saying:

  • Pentagon spokesperson Dana White: "The Coalition has liberated the ISIS-held territory, but the campaign against ISIS is not over. We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign. ... We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates."
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "This is a U.S. decision and we will study its timetable, its implementation and its repercussions for us. In any case, we will make sure Israel's security is preserved and we will defend ourselves from this arena."
  • Russia Foreign Ministry: "A milestone story which might evolve from this decision is a real prospect for a political solution. Hope emerges that this location on the Syrian map will follow the example of Aleppo and other Syrian towns and villages which begin getting back to peaceful life. Once Americans were there, there was no such hope."
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): "Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake. With all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there — certainly not Afghanistan. President Trump is right to want to contain Iranian expansion. However, withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and puts our allies, the Kurds, at risk. A decision to withdraw will also be viewed as a boost to ISIS' desire to come back."
  • Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker: "I've never seen a decision like this since I've been here, 12 years, where nothing is communicated in advance. And all of a sudden this type of massive decision takes place...It's caught everybody off guard...Honestly, this makes what Obama did in Iraq, it's replicating that. But in many ways, it's even worse...It's a terrible thing for our nation, it's a terrible thing for the allies we've been working with, it's a terrible thing for the SDF. It's hard to imagine any president would wake up and make this kind of decision with this little communication, with this little preparation."
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): "Hasty withdrawal from Syria will cause Kurds and the Syrian Defense Forces to end fight against ISIS and turns Syria over to Israel’s greatest enemies. This is a terrible mistake. It will have grave consequences for the U.S. and Israel and great benefit for ISIS, Iran and Hezbollah." Rubio later pointed out with disdain that the Russian Embassy in the U.S. tweeted its support of the decision.
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): "Eight days ago, the Administration called a hypothetical pullout 'reckless.' Today, we're leaving. The President's generals have no idea where this weak decision comes from. They believe the high-fiving winners today are Iran, ISIS, and Hezbollah. The losers are Israel, humanitarian victims, and U.S. intelligence gathering. A lot of American allies will be slaughtered if this retreat is implemented."
  • Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.): "The US is the only global power able to stop Russia, Iran, and their terrorist proxies in Syria from total control of a region vital to national security. We've made significant progress in our fight against ISIS but the fight isn't over, and a US withdrawal will embolden bad actors. I urge President Trump to immediately halt any plans to withdraw US troops from Syria and to consult with Congress on a long-term Syria strategy that protects US national interests and denies a win for Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and the Iranian mullahs."
  • House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.): "The last administration showed what happens when arbitrary political deadlines ... dictate policy in war zones. We must learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.”

Go deeper: The Trump administration's mixed messages on Syria

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