In the wake of President Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria, there has been some renewed interest in the Security Studies Group’s Full Public Syria Plan. However, until now we have only published the “public” version of that plan. The public version differed from the version we sent to the National Security Council in three respects, which we thought too sensitive to include in the public debate. With the announcement of the withdrawal, however, there is no longer any reason not to disclose our advice and warnings.
Here are the things we kept out of the public version. These are presented exactly as they were composed in April of this year.
We redacted these discussions from the public version for two reasons. The first is that a frank discussion of the weakness of an American fighting position does not belong in the public square, as it might put American service members at risk. The fact that our position was, and is, much weaker than might be apparently needed to be brought to the White House’s attention, but not to our enemy’s.
The other reason is that the discussion of the potential for armed conflict between Turkey and the United States would touch on some sensitive diplomatic efforts. The potential was real enough that it needed to be discussed privately, but it was not the time to do so in the public discussion.
It is my assessment that Turkey’s Erdogan has committed to an incursion which brought these issues to the fore and that these concerns adequately explain the American decision to withdraw. Our position was too exposed and too minimal to contest a large combined arms force. It had to be heavily reinforced or withdrawn, and the reinforcements were never made.
That withdrawal does not leave America powerless, as we have many elements of power short of military deployments. In the face of such a Turkish commitment, however, withdrawal is indicated by the facts on the ground.
Five years ago, ISIS was a powerful, destructive force in the Middle East. By late May 2015, the terrorist group would control half of Syria—including all of the country’s border crossings with Iraq.
The American people were rightly worried. Then-candidate Donald J. Trump made them two solemn promises. The first was that America and its allies would defeat ISIS. The second was that our troops would never be put in harm’s way longer than absolutely necessary to protect the American people.
In his first days in office, President Trump changed the rules of engagement, empowering U.S. military commanders on the ground. The results were unmistakable. In August 2017, The Washington Post reported that gains against ISIS had “dramatically” accelerated on his watch: “Nearly a third of territory reclaimed from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has been won in the past six months.”
Eight months later, in April 2018, President Trump announced that “over the last year, nearly 100 percent of the territory once controlled by the so-called ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been liberated and eliminated.”
Today, the President is honoring his promise. “As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home,” he said in April. This morning, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced that “we have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
The Global Coalition against ISIS will not end. “The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary.”
No wonder people all over the world are chanting we want Trump