Long Term, Trump’s Syrian Withdrawal Could Endanger US, BU Expert Says
Pardee School’s Gregory Aftandilian suggests damage control
ISIS “is going to come here,” Joe Biden warned in this month’s Democratic debate, following President Trump’s surprise withdrawal of American troops from Syria. “They are going to, in fact, damage the United States of America.”
Biden’s assertion divided security experts as to whether the Democratic presidential candidate was overstating the homeland threat from the terrorist group. But they were universal in condemning Trump’s decision to bring home the approximately 1,000 troops stationed on the northern Syria border. Those soldiers had been supporting front-line fighters against ISIS—the Kurds, our allies in this and other battles going back decades.
Trump justified the decision as fulfilling his vow to end “forever wars” in the Middle East. But springing the withdrawal suddenly on longtime comrades was a “betrayal,” retired US Army General David Petraeus argued. It was a sentiment echoed by numerous congressional Republicans, who also denounced the decision, along with military veterans who served with the Kurds.
But few offered any ideas for mitigating the damage. BU Today spoke with Gregory Aftandilian, lecturer at BU’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, about the situation and his thoughts on how the US should proceed. He wrote a column for the Arab Weekly condemning the president’s “impulsivity and disdain” for consulting with his own government experts. “Trump made this withdrawal decision immediately after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who apparently convinced him that Turkey needed to clear this area of ‘terrorists,’” as the Turks deem the Kurds.
A two-decade veteran of US government service, Aftandilian was a congressional foreign policy adviser and staffer, including for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and for the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
With Gregory Aftandilian
BU Today: Is Joe Biden right when he says that the withdrawal of American troops makes it possible that the US could be hit by an ISIS terrorist attack?
Aftandilian: I believe Biden is right, but it might take a few years for ISIS to regroup and be able to plan an attack on the US homeland.
Right now, ISIS is in disarray, having lost its territory in Syria and Iraq, but because thousands of ISIS fighters were able to escape the final assaults in 2016–2018, in addition to those now escaping from prison camps following the US withdrawal from Syria, ISIS could rebound and do damage against the United States.
Whether or not the United States is at risk, what steps can the government take to prevent a resurgence of ISIS to the strength it attained at its height?
The United States needs to keep US troops in Iraq for the time being to help Iraqi forces go after ISIS cells. In the process, the US should be sensitive to Iraqi notions of sovereignty, because misstatements can stir up Iraqi nationalist sentiments against the US troop presence.
At the same time, the US needs to be vigilant about ISIS propaganda on social media and should pursue effective ways to counter their messages, which can inspire so-called lone wolves to undertake terrorist acts.
What interests, if any, beyond ISIS do we have in the region, and how can we protect them without a troop presence on Syria’s northern border? What role should our European and Arab allies play in safeguarding interests we share with them?
Britain and France have small contingents of forces in Syria. We can try to persuade them not to leave, but that will be difficult given the US withdrawal. The United States and its European allies need to try to limit Russian and Iranian influence in the region because these two countries are pursuing policies that are inimical to US interests. This means that the US and its European allies should not withdraw troops from other countries in the region for the time being and should find ways to shore up countries that are struggling economically, like Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
The US should also try to find a diplomatic solution to the Yemen crisis [in which the US-supported Saudi intervention in a civil war has spawned “the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster,” according to the UN]. In addition to ending the terrible humanitarian situation in that country, US mediation in Yemen could go a long way toward ending destabilizing proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran that have inflamed the area.
Furthermore, if a Democrat were to win the White House in 2020, he or she should return to the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. The US withdrawal from that deal at a time when Iran was abiding by its terms not only caused tensions to rise in the Gulf region but also caused strains between the United States and its traditional European allies.
Given last weekend’s killing of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, do you have any hope we’ll see similar successes against the group going forward, in light of Trump’s Syrian withdrawal?
The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was certainly a big accomplishment for the Trump administration, but it will not end the ISIS threat. Thousands of ISIS fighters escaped the fall of their so-called caliphate, and so there are numerous ISIS cells in both Syria and Iraq. It is likely that a new ISIS leader will emerge soon.