The last week in northeastern Syria can, at best, be described as messy. The Turkish government’s cross-border operation to push Kurdish fighters further south has displaced 100,000 people in the first four days alone. The two large border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad have either been captured by Turkish-backed Syrian proxies or are in the process of falling under their control.
Although much of Washington is red-hot with fury about Trump’s order to pull back from Kurdish territory and three outposts along the border, U.S. soldiers should not have been left in the area. With Turkish forces moving south, Kurdish forces preparing their defenses, and Assad-regime troops heading north and east, U.S. troops were stuck in an untenable situation had no option but to exfiltrate out of the kill zone. Indeed, it would have been a dereliction of duty had a numerically smaller U.S. force been ordered to stand their ground.
If the Trump administration committed a mistake, it was made well before U.S. forces withdrew from the border last week. Washington’s decision to stay in Syria after the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate collapsed earlier this spring is the genesis for much of what has gone wrong since.
One can draw a straight line between the bloody fight going on in north Syria and Trump’s reluctance 10 months earlier to pull American troops out of the country. From the moment the United States chose to stick around, the administration deliberately chose to transform the mission from battling the Islamic State to serving as the external protector of Kurdish aspirations in Syria’s north. Washington’s troop presence, in turn, gave Kurdish officials false hope that the U.S. would indefinitely deter a Turkish invasion from the north that, based on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions, would occur sooner or later.
Despite the multiple wars and multiple foreign powers that have defined Syria for over eight years, U.S. national security interests in the country were always specific: to weaken the Islamic State to the point that the organization was no longer capable of controlling large swaths of territory. In partnering with the Syrian Kurds, Washington formed a tactical relationship with a community that had even more of an interest in routing ISIS from the area. Militarily, the partnership worked like a charm; the combination of U.S. air strikes and Kurdish ground forces were too much for ISIS to resist. Within a few short years, the caliphate shrunk from the size of Great Britain to a few miles of barren and dusty wasteland in the backwaters of Baghouz, Syria, where thousands of ISIS fighters were either killed or captured.
Yet contrary to President Trump’s public declarations that a U.S. withdrawal was imminent, the withdrawal never happened. Washington’s mission in Syria shifted abruptly from counterterrorism to quasi-peacekeeping and stabilization operations, a military-term for rebuilding and reconstructing liberated terrain from the ground up. It wasn’t long before U.S. special operations forces who deployed to Syria to kill ISIS were re-tasked with adjudicating a Turkish-Kurdish rivalry along the northern Syria border area that has persisted for decades. U.S. ground forces should never have been placed in the position of patrolling buffer zones between the Turkish army and Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces in the first place. And yet such a peacekeeping enforcement mission was perhaps inevitable as soon as the White House neglected to implement a withdrawal after Baghouz fell to SDF troops after a months-long siege.
Long before Turkish and Turkish-backed proxies crossed Syria’s northeastern border last week, Kurdish officials have pressed Washington to do one of two things: either protect their community from being swallowed by a Turkish military incursion, or bless attempts by the Kurds to explore an alternative security arrangement with Russia and the Assad regime in Damascus. The first option was always a non-starter for the White House, and for good reason: engaging in combat with Turkey on behalf of a non-state Kurdish partner would have entailed unnecessary risk in pursuit of a mission that couldn’t be solved with American military power. It would also have represented a betrayal to the very U.S. servicemembers sent into Syria, none of whom expected to fight a fellow NATO member.
The second scenario, however, was the most plausible option on the table. While there is no love lost between the Kurds and the Assad regime, the two were at least open to a detente of sorts. An agreement would have given both sides something to savor: for Assad, overall control in a part of Syria that has been out of his reach since the start of Syria’s war 9 years ago; for the Kurds, a deterrent against a Turkish assault. Regrettably, Washington refused to endorse such an arrangement and even obliquely threatened the Kurds with a loss of support should they approach Damascus. Speaking on U.S. television in January, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton directed the Kurds to “stand fast now” and refrain from making contacts with Assad or the Russians for protection. Trump may have wanted U.S. troops to leave, but his team managing the Syria portfolio remained ambivalent about the prospect, undermined the president’s message, and misled Kurdish authorities into believing Washington would stay over the long-term. In the end, the Trump administration’s aversion to dealing with a resurgent Assad regime prevented the Kurds from making their own decisions.
Nearly one year later, the situation has come full circle. Faced with a continuation of a Turkish onslaught on the one hand and a loveless marriage with Damascus on the other, the Kurds have gambled on Damascus. According to Oct. 13 press reports, Kurdish, Syrian, and Russian officials have struck a deal allowing Syrian regime forces to enter Kurdish border towns in order to stop Ankara from capturing more land. It was roughly the same deal the United States spurned earlier this year.
There are any lessons to be learned from this deeply distressing experience.
First, Washington should never change the mission set unless doing so is absolutely required to fulfill core U.S. national security interests. Even then, new objectives should only be pursued after a dispassionate, comprehensive evaluation across the entire national security bureaucracy about the costs and benefits of the proposed action. Years later, it remains a mystery as to whether U.S. officials engaged in that a debate before agreeing to patrol a buffer zone the Turks always thought was insufficient.
Second, the U.S. must be crystal clear with its partners early on about what its intentions are. The Trump administration failed spectacularly on this score, avoiding the hard but critical conversations needed to shock the Kurds into working on new arrangements for themselves. By muddying the picture, Kurdish leaders were not able to state confidently that U.S. forces would be departing. The more honest the U.S. is, the sooner its partners can plan accordingly.
Third, the longer the U.S. maintains a military presence in a war zone, the more susceptible the U.S. is to becoming distracted with completely unnecessary and resource-intensive tasks not germane to the core objective.
Fourth and finally, U.S. national security officials must recognize that stubbornly clinging to a regime-change policy can have deadly consequences. Washington’s fixation with isolating the Assad regime obstructed the Kurds from working on a deal with Damascus at a time when they possessed more leverage. This poor judgment opened the door to the mind-boggling conflict we see today,
The best course for the United States in Syria has always been to withdraw after the ISIS caliphate ceased to exist. In waiting to conduct that withdrawal and indeed expanding the mission, the United States made the situation even worse.