Just before Christmas, it appeared the United States was on the verge of quickly withdrawing remaining U.S. troops from Syria, a move which would have thrown the safety, security, and religious freedom of the area into doubt. Now, thankfully, the quick withdrawal isn’t so sure.
When President Trump announced this decision, FRC expressed concern — as did a number of the president’s supporters — about the religious freedom implications of this move. If the United States moves out, ISIS, Turkey, Iran, and other Islamist groups move in. As our own General Jerry Boykin pointed out to CBN News, among the vulnerable are Christian communities, including those made up of former Muslims, who would undoubtedly receive the brunt of ISIS’s rage if the group is allowed to fester and again conquer freed areas of Syria. Syrian Christians also appealed directly to fellow believers in the United States, asking not to be abandoned now, after our support enabled them to fight for some semblance of freedom.
As General Boykin told Fox News over the Christmas break, while he “wants the president to succeed,” he believes it would be a mistake to pull U.S. troops out of Syria this quickly. Aside from the shame of again abandoning our allies the Kurds, any genocide that occurs due to our withdrawal would destroy President Trump’s legacy on ISIS and the Middle East. It makes sense that the president would want to fulfill this campaign promise, but the United States needs to make sure ISIS is fully defeated.
It appears the president is listening. Following his initial statement about a “quick” withdrawal, Trump more recently announced that the withdrawal would take four months. After a recent lunch with the president, Senator Lindsey Graham (who shares our concerns about the move), said Trump “told me some things I didn’t know that make me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria.” President Trump “promised to destroy ISIS. He’s going to keep that promise,” Graham said. “We’re not there yet. But as I said today, we’re inside the 10-yard line and the president understands the need to finish the job.”
One of the vulnerable areas is known as the Federation of Northern Syria, which is a modern religious freedom miracle — permitting those of all religions (including former Muslims) to live out their faith (something quite rare in the Middle East). Those cultivating this miracle want to build religious freedom for everyone over the long-term — the type of allies the United States needs as we seek to promote religious freedom around the world. Failure to support the work of such allies will inevitably result in destabilization, only causing more people to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.
Aside from the actual problems associated with a quick pull-out, the optics of this potential move are very bad. It appears President Trump spoke with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan who had threatened to invade Northeastern Syria, and now the United States is planning to pull out. Even if the two leaders have some kind of agreement to protect the Kurds, this looks bad, because Erdogan cannot be trusted. Compounding all this is the fact that our withdrawal could lead to Iran’s increased presence, which will further threaten Israel. Yet now, with the Saudis ready to spend big money to re-build some of Syria, President Trump has a perfect opportunity.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out. With his announcement that our troops will now be withdrawn more slowly, it appears the president recognizes some of the concerns we and others have pointed out, and we are optimistic he will continue to take them into account. In supporting religious freedom models like the Federation of Northern Syria, and helping build them elsewhere in the region, President Trump has an opportunity for a truly historic legacy in the Middle East.
Tony Perkins’ Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.
EDITORS NOTE: This column with images by FRC is republished with permission.