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President Trump Announces U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Syria

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Begun over seven years ago, the conflict in Syria became and remains a humanitarian crisis. The United States entered the conflict in 2014 and has since been involved through its use of airstrikes and deployment of ground forces. On December 19, 2018, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. In the months subsequent to this announcement, unsettled questions have lingered regarding a timeline for withdrawal, the fate of the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, and how the decision to withdraw will affect U.S. interactions with other Middle Eastern countries.

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1 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Briefing on Syria (Nov. 14, 2018), at https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/11/287368.htm [https://perma.cc/CV2N-2HMJ] [hereinafter November Briefing] (noting that the conflict has led to an estimated 400,000 deaths, 200,000 incarcerations, 100,000 disappearances, and thousands tortured). For information about the Syrian refugee crisis, see UNHCR, Syria Emergency, at https://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html.

2 Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Dec. 19, 2018, 3:10 PM), at https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1075528854402256896 [https://perma.cc/Q6GG-9WRA] [hereinafter Trump Video Announcement].

3 White House Press Release, Transcript of Background Conference Call on Airstrikes in Syria (Sept. 23, 2014), at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/background-conference-call-airstrikes-syria [https://perma.cc/V2NV-6CNR]. For more details, see Kristina Daugirdas & Julian Davis Mortenson, Contemporary Practice of the United States, 109 AJIL 174, 199 (2015).

4 White House Press Release, Letter from the President – War Powers Resolution Regarding Iraq (Sept. 23, 2014), at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/letter-president-war-powers-resolution-regarding-iraq [https://perma.cc/V8HE-6X59]. The 2001 AUMF authorizes the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States … .” Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Pub. L. No. 107-40, § 2(a), 115 Stat. 224, 224 (2001) (codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1541 (2012)). The 2002 AUMF provides that the “President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.” Pub. L. No. 107-243, § 3(a), 116 Stat. 1498 (2002) (codified at 50 U.S. § 1541 (2012)). For discussion of the legal reasoning undergirding the reliance on these two AUMFs, see Daugirdas & Mortenson, supra note 3, at 207–08 (further noting that reliance on the 2002 AUMF was limited to airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq rather than Syria).

5 The United States claimed that it had the right to conduct airstrikes in Syria based on Article 51 of the UN Charter because “the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks.” Letter from Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, UN Doc. S/2014/695 (Sept. 23, 2014) [https://perma.cc/HPS9-S6AW]. But see Daugirdas & Mortenson, supra note 3, at 204–06 (noting that this “unable or unwilling” analysis is “relatively controversial”). In November 2015, the Security Council passed Resolution 2249, which “[c]alls upon Member States … to take all necessary measures … on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da'esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL … .” SC Res. 2249, para. 5 (Nov. 20, 2015). This ambiguous language may be taken to provide additional international legal support for uses of force against ISIL. See Dapo Akande & Marko Milanović, The Constructive Ambiguity of the Security Council's ISIS Resolution, EJIL: Talk! (Nov. 21, 2015), at https://www.ejiltalk.org/the-constructive-ambiguity-of-the-security-councils-isis-resolution. For airstrikes in Iraq, the United States claims an international legal justification separate from self-defense, namely the consent of the government of Iraq. See Daugirdas & Mortenson, supra note 3, at 206.

6 President Barack Obama White House Press Release, Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest 10/30/15 (Oct. 30, 2015), at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/30/daily-press-briefing-press-secretary-josh-earnest-103015 [https://perma.cc/J37Y-5W84].

7 Rod Nordland, U.S. Exit Seen as a Betrayal of the Kurds, and a Boon for ISIS, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2018), at https://nyti.ms/2Gwys3S.

8 Donald J. Trump, Remarks at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, 2017 Daily Comp. Pres. Doc. No. 61, at 2 (Jan. 21).

9 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Department Press Briefing – December 11, 2018 (Dec. 11, 2018), at https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2018/12/288024.htm [https://perma.cc/KFT3-R47P] [hereinafter December Briefing].

10 Id.

11 In April 2018, Trump stated at a conference that he wanted “to bring our troops back home” and that it was “time” in light of the “success[] against [ISIL].” The President's News Conference with President Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, President Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia, and President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, 2018 Daily Comp. Pres. Doc. No. 212, at 6 (Apr. 3). Additionally, in November 2018, Trump claimed in an interview leading up to U.S. midterm elections that “[w]e've defeated [ISIL]. [ISIL] is defeated in all of the areas that we fought [ISIL] … .” John Hudson, Lawmakers Raise Alarm About ISIS Attacks Against Syria's Druze Population, Wash. Post. (Nov. 8, 2018), at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/lawmakers-raise-alarm-about-isis-attacks-against-syrias-druze-population/2018/11/07/333c5872-b360-495a-92af-f5ef6ef50a73_story.html.

12 White House Press Release, Statement by the Press Secretary on Syria (Apr. 4, 2018), at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-press-secretary-syria [https://perma.cc/P46S-KBHF].

13 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Briefing on the Status of Syria Stabilization Assistance and Ongoing Efforts to Achieve an Enduring Defeat of ISIS (Aug. 17, 2018), at https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/08/285202.htm [https://perma.cc/GLN9-KZBU].

14 December Briefing, supra note 9. Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, had previously remarked that “the enduring defeat means not simply smashing the last of [ISIL's] conventional military units holding terrain, but ensuring that [ISIL] doesn't immediately come back and sleeper cells come back as an insurgent movement.” November Briefing, supra note 1.

15 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Remarks at the 36th Annual Jewish Institute for National Security of America Awards Dinner (Oct. 10, 2018), at https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/10/286559.htm [https://perma.cc/K6EG-3TEQ]. Ambassador Jeffrey also listed the same three U.S. objectives for Syria in a later briefing. November Briefing, supra note 1.

16 White House Press Release, Statement of Support: H.R. 1677 – Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2018 (Nov. 30, 2018), at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-support-h-r-1677-caesar-syria-civilian-protection-act-2018 [https://perma.cc/7QRN-D7Q4]. The bill was named for a Syrian photographer with the pseudonym of Caesar who provided photographs of atrocities committed by the Assad regime. U.S. House of Representatives Comm. on Foreign Affairs Press Release, Engel Welcomes Senate Action on Syria Sanctions Bill (Sept. 26, 2018), at https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/2018/9/engel-welcomes-senate-action-on-syria-sanctions-bill [https://perma.cc/FN4M-23EU].

17 H.R. 1677, 115th Cong. § 102 (2018). The text as reported to the Senate is available here: https://perma.cc/PY38-GVD7.

18 Id., § 103.

20 Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, Pub. L. No. 115-300 (2018) [hereinafter ISGRAA]; White House Press Release, President Donald J. Trump Signed H.R. 390 into Law (Dec. 11, 2018), at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-signed-h-r-390-law [https://perma.cc/KJJ4-BJUF].

21 ISGRAA, supra note 20, § 5(a).

22 Julian Borger & Martin Chulov, Trump Shocks Allies and Advisers with Plan to Pull U.S. Troops Out of Syria, Guardian (Dec. 19, 2018), at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/19/us-troops-syria-withdrawal-trump. Just days before, Trump had noted to congressional leadership that as “part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat [ISIL], United States Armed Forces are conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes and other necessary operations against [ISIL] forces in Iraq and Syria.” White House Press Release, Text of a Letter from the President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (Dec. 7, 2018), at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/text-letter-president-speaker-house-representatives-president-pro-tempore-senate-5 [https://perma.cc/YQ4T-2P8R] [hereinafter Letter to Congress] (sending letter to Congress pursuant to Trump's War Powers Resolution duty, 50 U.S.C. § 1543(c), to keep Congress informed about deployments of U.S. forces equipped for combat).

23 Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Dec. 19, 2018, 6:29 AM), at https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1075397797929775105 [https://perma.cc/JT3S-GN3L].

24 Trump Video Announcement, supra note 2.

25 Rukmini Callimachi & Eric Schmitt, Splitting with Trump Over Syria, American Leading ISIS Fight Steps Down, N.Y. Times (Dec. 22, 2018), at https://nyti.ms/2RcP5pk. He further stated that he “ultimately concluded that [he] could not carry out these new instructions and maintain [his] integrity.” Id.

26 Daniel Bush, Read James Mattis’ Full Resignation Letter, PBS (Dec. 20, 2018), at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/read-james-mattis-full-resignation-letter. The letter is permanently available here: https://perma.cc/974Q-W78E.

27 Id.

28 Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC), Twitter (Dec. 19, 2018, 6:27 PM), at https://twitter.com/LindseyGrahamSC/status/1075578496733364226 [https://perma.cc/5NWL-SK97].

29 Id.

30 Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, S.1, 116th Cong. § 408(a) (2019). Twenty-five Democrats voted for the bill while twenty-two voted against it, signaling that it may be possible for the bill to pass in the Democrat-controlled House. Marianne Levine, Senate Passes Middle East Policy Bill that Rebukes Trump, Politico (Feb. 5, 2019), at https://www.politico.com/story/2019/02/05/senate-passes-middle-east-policy-bill-1147816. Trump recently announced in his State of the Union Address that as his administration makes progress in peace negotiations with the Taliban, “we will be able to reduce our troop's presence [in Afghanistan] and focus on counterterrorism.” White House Press Release, Remarks by President Trump in State of the Union Address (Feb. 5, 2019), at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-state-union-address-2 [https://perma.cc/PJ6Q-688F].

31 Nordland, supra note 7.

32 Id.

33 Id.

34 Syrian Democratic Forces Press Release, To the Public Opinion (Dec. 20, 2018), at http://sdf-press.com/en/2018/12/to-the-public-opinion-5 [https://perma.cc/TC67-V8JP].

35 Neil MacFarquhar & Andrew E. Kramer, Putin Welcomes U.S. Withdrawal from Syria as “Correct, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2018), at https://nyti.ms/2RfTrw9.

36 Erin Cunningham & Louisa Loveluck, Turkey's Erdogan Delays Operation Against Kurdish Forces in Syria, Wash. Post. (Dec. 21, 2018), at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkeys-erdogan-delays-operation-against-kurdish-forces-in-syria/2018/12/21/ea505452-418f-4d98-bc7d-7ae527c46d18_story.html.

37 White House Press Release, Remarks by President Trump to Troops at Al Asad Air Base, Al Anbar Province, Iraq (Dec. 26, 2018), at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-troops-al-asad-air-base-al-anbar-province-iraq [https://perma.cc/E7MU-V4A6] [hereinafter Trump Remarks to Troops].

38 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Senior State Department Officials Previewing Secretary Pompeo's Upcoming Trip to the Middle East (Jan. 4, 2019), at https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288333.htm [https://perma.cc/XPM2-49JX] [hereinafter Briefing on Middle East Trip].

39 Trump Remarks to Troops, supra note 37. In Iraq, U.S. forces have been “advising and coordinating with Iraqi forces and providing training, equipment, communications support, intelligence support, and other support to select elements of the Iraqi security forces, including Iraqi Kurdish Security forces.” Letter to Congress, supra note 22.

40 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Interview with Wilfred Frost of CNBC (Jan. 7 2019), at https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/01/288346.htm [https://perma.cc/MLC2-YAT4].

41 Briefing on Middle East Trip, supra note 38.

42 Steve Holland, Bolton Says Turkey Must Not Attack Kurdish Fighters Once U.S. Leaves Syria, Reuters (Jan. 6, 2019), at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-usa-syria/bolton-says-turkey-must-not-attack-kurdish-fighters-once-u-s-leaves-syria-idUSKCN1P0090.

43 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Remarks to Press (Jan. 7, 2019), at https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/01/288349.htm [https://perma.cc/K8Z8-VD95].

44 Annie Karni & Thomas Gibbons-Neff, 200 U.S. Troops to Stay in Syria, White House Says, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2019), at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/21/world/middleeast/us-troops-syria-.html (reporting that “the move was aimed at encouraging France and Britain to keep troops in Syria, as well as to help secure a safe zone near the Turkish border”).

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