Donald Trump's Syria Withdrawal Could 'Undo Five Years' Worth of Fighting Against ISIS,' Retired General Warns

Retired General Joseph Votel has hit out at President Donald Trump's erratic strategy in Syria, with the four-star general arguing in a new op-ed that the White House's conduct threatens to further destabilize the Middle East and undermine America's relationship with its military partners.

The op-ed—published by The Atlantic—was co-written by Elizabeth Dent, a Middle East Institute non-resident fellow who worked at the State Department as part of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS from 2014 to 2019.

The two authors condemned Trump's "abrupt" decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria—where they were supporting America's Kurdish-led allies—in the face of an imminent Turkish assault on the area.

The president has been criticized for abandoning the allies that bore the brunt of the fight against ISIS, though Trump had denied giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light for an invasion.

Votel and Dent said the move "could not come at a worse time" and was made "without consulting U.S. allies or senior U.S. military leadership."

The authors said the U.S. could ill afford to be throwing away military partnerships given the "war-weariness of the American public" and "more sophisticated enemies determined to come after us."

The Syrian Democratic Forces—a coalition of various Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen militias led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG—has been America's most effective ally in the fight against ISIS.

The coalition suffered some 11,000 during the campaign, backed by Western airstrikes, intelligence and special forces troops.

Votel—who served as commander of United States Central Command from 2016 to 2019—recalled his first meeting with SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi in May 2016. "I concluded that we had finally found the right partner who could help us defeat ISIS without getting drawn into the murkier conflict against [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad's regime," he wrote.

The op-ed noted that without the SDF, "Trump could not have declared the complete defeat of ISIS." Though Trump has repeatedly claimed that ISIS has been entirely defeated, this is not true. All territory occupied by the group in Syria and Iraq has been recaptured, but cells of fighters remain active in both countries and further afield.

In Raqqa—formerly the group's de facto capital—on Wednesday, for example, several ISIS fighters attacked SDF positions, likely spurred on by the imminent Turkish offensive.

"It didn't have to be this way," Votel and Dent wrote. They suggested that despite intensive negotiations, "Ankara repeatedly reneged on its agreements with the U.S., deeming them inadequate and threatening to invade SDF-held areas, despite the presence of U.S. soldiers."

Lawmakers, diplomats and analysts have all warned that a Turkish invasion could spark renewed chaos in the SDF-held parts of Syria.

The Kurds are currently holding some 12,000 captured ISIS fighters and tens of thousands of civilians displaced from ISIS-occupied lands. A war would threaten their ability to secure these detention facilities.

Just months after ISIS was declared defeated, the chaos of a new Turkish-Kurdish conflict might give the group vital breathing space to regroup. Indeed, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already called on his surviving followers to raid prisons and detention centers to free their comrades.

Trump and the Pentagon have denied that the U.S. withdrawal is tacit permission for Turkey to invade, but it may already be too late to walk the decision back. "the damage may already be done," Votel and Dent explained. "It appears the Turks have taken the shift to signal a green light for an attack in the northeast."

"This policy abandonment threatens to undo five years' worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies."

Syria, Donald Trump, Joseph Votel, Turkey, ISIS
A Turkish army's tank drives towards the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on October 8, 2019. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images/Getty