Defense Secretary Mattis never wavered on continuing the Obama administration’s short-sighted “only ISIS” strategy in Syria. And now Iran will emerge as the big winner of the Trump administration’s decision to fully withdraw troops and personnel from Syria.
On Wednesday morning, the Trump administration announced that the United States has almost completed its mission against the Islamic State terrorist group and will now “transition to the next phase of this campaign,” which appears to be a full withdrawal from Syria.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to observers of the U.S. strategy in Syria, headed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, which entirely ignored Iran’s expansion into the region. The “only ISIS” strategy pursued by the Defense Department under both the Obama and Trump administrations essentially paved the way for Iran and allowed the terrorist regime to connect its land and air bridge from Tehran to Beirut.
ISIS’ “caliphate” has indeed been obliterated. The jihadi group struggles to hold the large swaths of territory it controlled when President Trump came into office. Over the course of the year, the narrow focus of the U.S. strategy in Syria has largely failed to protect U.S. strategic interests in the region and has only emboldened other adversarial actors such as Turkey and Russia.
In recent months, there were signs of momentum for a strategic recalibration before the president pulled the plug on the Syria mission. In September, national security adviser John Bolton highlighted the important mission of denying the nuclear-aspiring Iranian regime’s expansion throughout the Middle East.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton proclaimed while in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. This came on the heels of statements from Secretary of State Pompeo stressing the need to counter Iran.
Yet Secretary Mattis dismissed the idea shortly thereafter, reiterating his stance that U.S. troops were in Syria with the sole mission to take out ISIS.
“Right now our troops inside Syria are there for one purpose, and that’s under the U.N. authorization about defeating ISIS,” Mattis responded.
Secretary Mattis continued to strongly insist that the U.S. must remain in Syria in perpetuity until ISIS is completely defeated, which is largely an impossible logistical task. This approach created the groundwork for another endless engagement in a foreign war zone akin to the war in Afghanistan. And it was Mattis’s narrowly focused articulation of the war that ultimately led to the withdrawal of the U.S. presence in Syria. President Trump was told that we were there solely to defeat ISIS. He then concluded, given the approach presented to him by Mattis, that ISIS’ downfall can now allow us to withdraw from the region.
The Mattis-led U.S. strategy in Syria empowered Iran, Russia, and Turkey at the expense of our allies. A full withdrawal from the country will now accelerate that process. The Department of Defense and the bipartisan foreign policy class are infuriated by the decision to withdraw from Syria, but given their failed strategic approach to the region, they only have themselves to blame for the president’s decision to end the mission.