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Trump Says ISIS Is Defeated So U.S. Troops Will Leave Syria


President Trump announced abruptly yesterday that ISIS has been defeated in Syria and that he is removing all U.S. forces from that country. The president wrote on social media this morning that this should be no surprise, since he campaigned on this pullout. But it seems like everyone was surprised, including members of Congress, and including national security officials, past and present.

There's concern that the president is prematurely declaring the war on ISIS over in Syria. This is South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who's on the Armed Services Committee.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I have not found one person, national security-wise, who believes it's a good idea to remove the 2,200 troops, which was a small footprint, that was a bulwark against Iran expansion and insurance policy against the rise of ISIS. There was a widespread belief that ISIS has not been defeated. They've been hurt.

GREENE: And let's explore this more with Admiral James Stavridis. He was NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe when President Obama announced U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan despite warnings from military leaders. Admiral, welcome back to the program.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: David, great to be on with you.

GREENE: So has ISIS been defeated in Syria, as the president says?

STAVRIDIS: Absolutely not. There is good news here, let's face it. I'd say they're probably 80 percent, 85 percent defeated. That's a very good thing.

But if you want an analogy to sort of think about this, David, we've just gone through a big season of firefighting out in California. This would be roughly like our troops have contained the fire. We put out the active flames, but you still see smoldering little piles all around. You don't just turn around and walk away from it because you know it'll reflash. It'll start up again. It's a big mistake to walk away. There has been great progress - 85 percent defeated. Let's finish the job.

GREENE: Well, the president, in his tweets this morning, suggested that there are other countries, like Russia, that could finish the job and that the United States doesn't have to be there. Does he have an argument there that that can happen, or is the U.S. really needed to make sure that you contain and wipe out ISIS?

STAVRIDIS: The U.S. is really needed. And if we just walk away, the Russians, A, don't have the capability to really finish that job. And, B, even if they did, David, what we would effectively be doing is ceding all of Syria to not only Russia, but to their allies, the Iranians. That puts Israel at risk. That puts our Gulf allies at risk. That emboldens further terrorist attacks state-sponsored by Hezbollah, by Iran.

So it's a complex game here. And to take that simple, easy and wrong path of just walking away is a mistake.

GREENE: I know that Russia's President Vladimir Putin has already been saying that he likes the idea of President Trump...

STAVRIDIS: Of course.

GREENE: That doesn't surprise you, it sounds like.

STAVRIDIS: No. This is a great Christmas present to Vladimir Putin. And you know what's ironic, David, is that it's not that big a troop deployment. This is - we're only talking about 2,000 or 3,000 troops. Let's recall at the height of, for example, Afghanistan, where I commanded that mission as the NATO commander, I had 150,000 troops there. In Iraq, we had 180,000 troops. Here, we're talking about 2,000 to 3,000 troops.

And just to put that in perspective, David, on our southern border with Mexico, facing an imaginary opponent, we've got 6,000 troops deployed to that border right now. So this is penny-wise and pound-foolish to get out of this situation.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you - I mean, you bring up Afghanistan and Iraq, I mean, where there are still American service members who, you know, are dying well over a decade after those wars started. I mean, Americans have watched U.S. involvement there. They've now watched, you know, U.S. involvement in Syria as maybe seeing - in the case of some people, seeing it as an open-ended commitment to a fight without really clear ground rules or an endgame.

Like, is there really a strategy for these 2,000 or so American troops that you could say, it's really worth them being there, if you could tell the American people that?

STAVRIDIS: I can, and I strongly believe there is. And again, let's kind of do the numbers to keep this in perspective. As I just said, combined, we had 300,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

GREENE: Sure. A lot more.

STAVRIDIS: Now we're down - 95 percent of them have come home. Our strategy has been and will continue to be turn this fight over to the locals - train them, equip them, organize them and get our allies in the fight with us. That's the strategy. It is succeeding in Syria, and I think it has a reasonable chance of succeeding in Afghanistan, but not if we just abruptly walk away on the basis of a tweet.

GREENE: It seems like, I mean, this question of whether presidents - commanders in chief take the advice of their military advisers, you know, is a question that you ask in every single presidential administration. But, you know, President Trump, maybe more than other presidents, talks about that he trusts his military.

So just tell me how this tweet comes about if we're taking him seriously that he really trusts his military. Are there people in the military who are telling him to do this - to get out?

STAVRIDIS: There are zero people in the military telling him to do this, and I say that not only putting on my hat as a former four-star leader, but also just conversations I'm having broadly with my peers and contemporaries who are still on active duty. There is no question that, militarily, this - no sense.

So, David, I think this has to undermine the confidence of the senior military in the president's judgment. It certainly does in my mind.

GREENE: Admiral James Stavridis was NATO supreme allied commander for Europe from 2009 to 2013. We really appreciate your time, Admiral.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks a lot. And happy holidays, David.

GREENE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.