U.S. troops are leaving Syria, and yet what happens there will continue to affect U.S. interests, both regionally and globally.
Tens of thousands of Islamic State terrorists imprisoned in northeastern Syria could escape, unleashing foreign fighters to sow havoc in their homes in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The Turkish offensive could displace as many as 300,000 Syrians, exacerbating the already monumental challenge of addressing the basic humanitarian needs of the 6 million Syrians who have taken refuge elsewhere in their country, and the nearly 7 million who have fled altogether. Russian President Putin is pointing to the U.S. withdrawal as a reason to turn to Moscow for security guarantees.
U.S. policymakers tasked with finding a way forward need a clear-eyed understanding both of American goals and objectives in the region and of the constraints placed on the United States by political, economic, and military realities. Acquiring this understanding requires an unflinching look at various hard truths. Among them:
U.S. strategic objectives in Syria are dangerously unrealistic. President Obama envisioned U.S. engagement in Syria through the relatively narrow prism of a counterterrorism campaign focused on the defeat of ISIS. President Trump’s senior national security advisors have embraced far more encompassing objectives that included protecting Kurdish allies from Turkish forces and compelling the complete withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria. The ongoing Turkish invasion is demonstrable proof of the folly of the former. Meanwhile, leaders in Tehran show no signs they are willing to abandon the Assad regime, long an essential component of Iran’s national-security strategy of forward defense. And in August — months before Trump’s widely condemned withdrawal — the Pentagon concluded that ISIS had already begun “resurging” in Syria. U.S. policymakers must establish strategic objectives that are attainable within the constraints of the investments they are willing to make in American blood and treasure.
The U.S. military position in Syria was always acutely vulnerable to outside pressures and forces. Syrian, Russian, and Iranian leaders have been united in criticizing, with some justification in international law, the presence of American military forces in Syria as a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria. Meanwhile, the U.S. military commitment to Syria has been inadequate to fully accomplish expressed U.S. objectives beyond the counter-ISIS fight. While a small U.S. military footprint in Syria is consistent with a ‘by, with, and through’ counterterrorism strategy that emphasizes reliance on local partner forces, spreading American forces thinly across broad territorial expanses raises their exposure to attacks from a range of hostile forces: ISIS remnants, Syrian Armed Forces, Turkey, Russia, or Iranian-aligned militias. In justifying the U.S. withdrawal, Defense Secretary Mark Esper openly admitted that U.S. forces were simply incapable of protecting the Syrian Kurdish militia against “Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally…in [a] conflict that goes back 200 years.” A smaller U.S. military footprint consolidated at Al-Tanf near the border with Jordan may reduce this risk of exposure, but will do nothing to reverse the steady decline of America’s ability to constructively influence favorable outcomes in Syria.
Violent Islamist movements like ISIS can only be degraded, not destroyed. Senior U.S. officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations have insisted that a central objective for the Syrian mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS. This may have been essential to garnering U.S. public support for military action, but is unrealistic as a policy matter. Islamist terrorist groups are fueled by radical ideologies that will prove to be an enduring feature of the security landscape in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The history of the return of neo-Nazi groups both in Europe and here at home, the proven resilience of groups like al-Qaeda, and the spread of so-called ISIS provinces in the Middle East and in Asia show that this threat will confound the international community for some time. Instead of naively hoping for a final end to this fight, U.S. counterterrorism policy should be focused on building a long-term global campaign to degrade threats at local, regional, and national levels.
U.S withdrawal and abandonment of the Syrian Kurds was inevitable. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius quotes senior CIA and U.S. military officers as denouncing the U.S. withdrawal as a “disgrace,” a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds who “shed blood for us,” and an “unsound, morally indefensible act.” Yet any observer of recent U.S. policy could not have been surprised by this move. President Trump originally and openly declared his decision to withdraw last December. The only open questions have concerned the precise timing and implementation of the withdrawal. In President Trump’s view, the primary purpose of the U.S. military presence in Syria was to fight ISIS. He is not wrong to claim that a strategy of limited U.S. military support to local Kurdish and Arab militia has effectively dismantled ISIS’ so-called Islamic caliphate. The U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurdish militia always had an effective expiration date contingent on the completion of that mission.
Smart money was always on an Assad “victory” – albeit a Pyrrhic one. After Arab uprisings ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen in 2011, President Obama assumed that similar forces might topple Syrian President Assad. Clinging to that hope, he declared in 2015 that Assad “has lost legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of the country.” But within months, Russia’s military intervention reversed Assad’s flagging fortunes. Coupled with support on the ground from Iranian-aligned militias, Russian airpower enabled Assad to recapture the vital economic hub and major population center of Aleppo in late 2016. Since then Russian, Iranian, and Turkish diplomats have negotiated a series of ceasefires and “de-escalation zones” in Syria intended to reduce fighting between Syrian and opposition forces. Unfortunately, Assad and his backers have routinely violated these arrangements, attacking exposed opposition forces, punishing local civil populations by air strikes on schools and hospitals, and grabbing territory whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Today, in addition to the Turkish invasion, there are reports of Syrian and Russian forces moving in to replace departing American forces in northeastern Syria. While these may represent a technical ‘victory’ for Assad, the tremendous damage inflicted during the eight-year civil war will saddle his regime with hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction costs that his backers in Moscow and Tehran are incapable of paying. Perhaps more dangerously to his own personal security, his thuggish reputation for brutality and the many crimes against humanity committed in his name will assure perpetual domestic opposition to his rule.
Russia has not “won” anything of substance. Since the Camp David Accords in 1979 ripped Egypt from the orbit of the Soviet Union, Syria has been Russia’s only major Arab state ally. Moreover, Syria has for decades provided the warm-water ports and airbases that allow Russian naval and air forces to operate in the eastern Mediterranean. So there was little chance Moscow would stand idly by as opposition forces moved to oust Assad from power.
Russian military intervention in Syria has admittedly solidified Russia’s reputation in the region as a dependable ally and has certainly improved its leverage with the Assad regime. However, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, the Syrian civil war has left the country weak, impoverished, and perhaps irrevocably broken. Such an impoverished ally will be a drain on Russian coffers and will be a poor conduit for amplifying Russian power or influence in the region.
Talk of an Iranian land bridge through Syria remains nonsense. Some analysts have urged the U.S. to keep forces in Syria to prevent the emergence of a “land bridge” to carry arms from Iran to its proxies in Lebanon and Syria. These fears are exaggerated. First, the Iranians already have an “air bridge” that they have used, for example, to facilitate Hizbollah’s acquisition of as many as 130,000 rockets and missiles. Second, even freer passage through a violent and unstable northeastern Syria leaves the obstacle of some 200 miles of sovereign Iraqi territory.
Sanctioning Turkey may feel good, but it will not compel a withdrawal and will likely exacerbate larger issues in the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Repeated Turkish military incursions into Syria make it clear that Ankara’s top national-security interest is preventing the emergence of a Kurdish canton along Turkey’s southern border. Despite President Trump’s threat to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen, who are leading the congressional sanctions effort, denounced the most recent round of U.S. sanctions “as a pathetic response” amounting to less than 1 percent of Turkey’s exports. Moreover, President Trump’s invitation to Erdogan for a White House meetingnext month is apparently still in play, sending conflicting messages as to the importance the U.S. attaches to this issue. Domestically, Erdogan is pushing a strong nationalist agenda that will make it hard to back down in the face of U.S. threats at a time when anti-American sentiment is running feverously high. Finally, yet another tense face-off with the United States will only convince Erdogan to deepen his alignment with Russia as shown by Turkey’s recent purchase of the advanced S-400 air defense missile system and participation in the Russian-led Astana talks on the future of Syria. U.S. sanctions alone will simply not be enough to deter Erdogan from pursuing what he views as essential steps to advance Turkey’s top national security interests and strengthen his nationalist base.
Solutions to the many problems associated with Syria for U.S. policymakers will not involve changes to U.S. military presence or posture. Reversing the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria is nearly unthinkable, for it would require active combat to oust the Turkish, Syrian, and Russian forces that have quickly moved to fill vacated U.S. posts. The real question for U.S. policymakers is what to do now. One urgent focus should be developing immediate plans for dealing with the millions of Syrian refugees who are internally dislocated or living as refugees across the Middle East and Europe. Turkey’s plans to resettle a million or more Syrian Arab refugees in the “safe zone” established by the ongoing Operation Peace Spring will upset the existing ethnic and sectarian balance in northeast Syria; some academic experts say that “is a perfect recipe for enduring ethnic tensions and instability.” Meanwhile, the nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees being hosted by neighboring Lebanon and Jordan threaten to undermine the delicate sectarian balances in these countries and drain already-scarce financial resources in their teetering economies. The U.S. should lead an international effort to generate resources and develop plans for easing the burdens on the countries hosting these refugees. Failing to do so risks creating a desperate, disenfranchised, and stateless population of aggrieved Syrians who will become easy prey for violent terrorist groups that would threaten Western interests for a long time to come.
U.S. must reengage diplomatically with all key players to include Moscow, Iran, Ankara and Damascus to facilitate needed postwar reconstruction. While the departure of U.S. troops has certainly diminished American leverage, it has long been clear that the regional players best positioned to influence outcomes in Syria are Russia, Iran, and Turkey. However, the U.S. has at least one important card to play in reasserting its ability to push developments in a more constructive direction. America is in a unique position to muster the international investment and coordinate the massive reconstruction effort that will be essential to repair a devastated Syrian economy and begin the process of repairing Syrian society. Doing so need not necessarily involve providing direct assistance through the despised regime of Bashar al-Assad. In fact, academic studies suggest that assistance is more likely to be effective if focused on a series of smaller projects developed in coordination with non-governmental organizations, local leaders, and communities. Doing so in this fashion with U.S. support, could well help Syria foster a genuine civil society that one day emerges from the ashes of civil war and frees itself from the tyranny of repressive leaders.