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What Is Left Behind When U.S. Troops Leave Syria


President Trump declared this week, we have defeated ISIS in Syria. He's ordered the 2,000 U.S. troops there to withdraw. But as they leave, who might step in - Iran, Turkey, Russia? I'm joined now by Jasmine El-Gamal. She's a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon. She joins us from Beirut. Thanks so much for being with us.

JASMINE EL-GAMAL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Are Russia and Iran happy about this?

EL-GAMAL: Russia and Iran are absolutely happy about this. A lot of people are saying that Christmas came early for the Russians and the Iranians this year and for ISIS, as well - come to think of it. The U.S. - by withdrawing in such an abrupt manner, without consulting any of our allies and partners on the ground and in the middle of what we have called our goal, our stated national security interest in Syria, which is an enduring defeat of ISIS and a withdrawal of Iranian troops from the region. Now we're leaving - both of those goals have not yet been met. So I would say the Russians and the Iranians are pretty happy with it.

SIMON: Now, to be sure, you've argued that President Trump's withdrawal from Syria repeats what you consider to be the mistakes that President Obama made in the region. How so?

EL-GAMAL: Well, we know now that the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq was premature. He may not have known it at the time. And his advisers may have known it at the time, but it ended up being a pretty hasty and premature withdrawal. It set a power vacuum in the region, specifically in Iraq, that laid the groundwork for the rise of ISIS later on. Now that we know this and President Trump has the benefit of hindsight, he seems to be - actually, he is, in my opinion, repeating the same mistake - leaving before the mission is accomplished, leaving before he set out to do what he said he was going to do and setting the stage for a resurgence of ISIS over the next several months.

SIMON: Is the withdrawal of U.S. forces an invitation for ISIS just to move back in?

EL-GAMAL: Absolutely. I would say that it's an invitation not only for ISIS to move back in but also for Russia to flex its muscles even further, for Turkey to go in and possibly attack the Kurds, who, you'll remember, up until this announcement, were our allies in the fight against ISIS. So it's not just the Russians or the Iranians or ISIS that are happy about this. It's all of them.

SIMON: What about not just in the region but outside of the region? Does a decision like this send a signal that the U.S. just lacks the will to become involved overseas?

EL-GAMAL: Well, you know, it's interesting because I think that impression, which is that the U.S. did not want to any longer be involved in the Middle East - it's not a Trump thing. President Obama was deeply averse to continued military involvement in the region. So that's not a surprise. What is surprising about this is the abrupt and almost spontaneous nature of the withdrawal. It's not that the U.S. is leaving because the U.S. can't stay forever and shouldn't. It's how they're leaving and when - that is the problem.

SIMON: Aren't there a lot of Americans, on the left and the right, who seem to feel, look - we're not the world's policeman? We've had soldiers dying overseas for decades. It's expensive. It costs precious lives. We're just tired of it. We don't see how it helps America. So just bring them home.

EL-GAMAL: Look. I think that's a valid point. And I would never argue - and I don't think a lot of people argue that we should keep Americans in the region to police the region. That is not our role. However, when it comes to a threat like ISIS that directly affects not only our interests and our safety but that of our allies and partners, as well, that is a national security interest of the United States. And we should stay until we finish the job. Now, remember, we stated that this was our goal in Syria - to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. That job is not even halfway done. So why leave now?

SIMON: Jasmine El-Gamal, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, joined us from Beirut on Skype. Thanks so much for being with us.

EL-GAMAL: Thanks again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.