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Trump Is Risking an ISIS Resurrection

Dean Emeritus Admiral James Stavridis on the consequences of pulling troops out of Syria, in his Bloomberg Opinion column.

In the U.S. Navy, we say that every sailor is a firefighter. That’s because when a fire breaks out on a ship at sea — a real threat given the combustible mixture of fuel, ammunition, electrical circuits and stored supplies — the entire crew is trained to step up and douse it. It’s not like you can just walk across the street and let the blaze burn itself out. I have fought fires several times, and here is the most important lesson: Never underestimate the power of a fire to “re-flash.” If you put out the initial flames but leave smoldering material, there is a high possibility of it leaping back to life. Navy protocol is to set a watch of sailors prepared to go back into action if a re-flash occurs.

This is also the right way to look at the Islamic State at the moment. Over the past several years and under two presidential administrations, U.S. and allied forces have taken away at least 95 percent of ISIS’s terrain. But without a re-flash watch, there is a real chance of the group reviving itself. Someone who knows this well is the head of the U.S. Central Command, General Joe Votel, a career special forces operator who has led the fight since 2016. “If the major actors and their proxies become embroiled in a competition for influence in Syria,” he told Congress recently, “this may create space for ISIS remnants or other terrorist groups to reform or reconstitute.” He echoed the view of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned after President Trump’s foolish declaration of a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

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