“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president tweeted to explain his sudden decision to withdraw the several thousand U.S. troops stationed in Syria within 30 days. Trump’s decision has a few potential positives, but overall the decision is a poor one—made far worse by the lack of a process and preparation.
The logic behind the continued deployment of the 2,000 or so U.S. troops in Syria was always a bit fuzzy. The administration could point to the Islamic State, Iran, or other foes or explain that the troops helped ensure the survival of America’s Kurdish ally, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who proved perhaps the best fighters against the Islamic State. Yet there was no articulated plan for the troops, and it was always unclear how this small number of troops would decisively shift the region’s military balance. Indeed, if a determined adversary decided to take U.S. forces on, they would be highly vulnerable.
In addition, a withdrawal gains the goodwill of Turkey. Ankara sees the YPG, with good reason, as allied to the Kurdish Workers Party, a Kurdish militant group that the government sees as an enemy and which both the United States and Turkey consider to be a terrorist group. Before the withdrawal, Turkey was threatening to raid YPG areas, raising the risk of a confrontation with the United States. So abandoning Syria leaves Turkey free to fill the void, including crushing the YPG. That’s one fewer headache with an important regional actor.
But the crushing of the YPG, of course, is one of the immediate dangers of the U.S. withdrawal. Although the U.S. forces were too small to defend the YPG militarily in an all-out fight, their presence had huge symbolic value for the Kurds, demonstrating U.S. commitment. The U.S. withdrawal is a green light for Turkey to act. The Kurds, once again, can point to an American betrayal as can other local forces in Libya and other countries whom the United States works with against terrorists. It also sends a broader message that the United States will not stand by its friends.
Turkey, at least, is a U.S. ally, albeit an increasingly repressive and often-hostile one. Iran, too, will seek to fill the void. It is already strong on the Iraqi side of the border, and it has acted as the savior of the Assad regime in Syria, giving it a strong regional position. With the United States out of the picture, its influence will grow further. Iran’s regional enemies worry about a “land bridge” that will connect Iran to Lebanon, via Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other U.S. regional allies will see Iran as gaining yet another victory if they expand in areas where U.S. forces currently are stationed. This will encourage Riyadh to continue foolish military campaigns like its war in Yemen, which it justifies in the name of containing Iran. For Israel there is a greater risk of a significant confrontation with Iran over Syria, as Jerusalem will have no reason to believe the United States is there to help protect it.
Of perhaps greatest concern, the Islamic State may revive. The U.S.-led military campaign has greatly weakened the group, and Trump should rightly be proud of that success, but it is far from “defeated.” The Islamic State still controls small pockets of territory in Syria. More important, it has a large underground presence, and it is waiting for outside pressure to ease to reassert itself. The group commits dozens of attacks each month as well as a massive assassination campaign to prevent any local governance from taking hold, and it still has thousands of fighters under arms. The U.S. forces both helped target the group directly and, more important, encouraged locals like the YPG that the United States would help protect them if they focused their energy on the Islamic State remnants. Now the YPG will worry about Turkey and other foes, and pressure on the Islamic State will ease dramatically. Indeed, as the area churns, some local actors may ally with the Islamic State out of convenience.
Beyond the specifics of Syria, the withdrawal also is part of a broader U.S. decline in the region. The actors that are filling the void—a hostile Iran, a scornful Russia, and a fearful and aggressive Saudi Arabia—are making the region less stable. The Trump administration, deliberately, is telling the world they are on their own, but America may not like the long-term results.
The Trump administration, deliberately, is telling the world they are on their own, but America may not like the long-term results.
Making the risks much greater is the lack of process. The president did not coordinate the decision with his senior advisors. Indeed, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis all had issued statements recently declaring that the United States would stay in Syria to counter Iran and to ensure other political goals. Allies have even less reason to trust the advisors speak for Trump, and by extension America. Key allies like France and the United Kingdom, which have troops in Syria on the assumption that America has their back, also were not told, making them reluctant to take on new risks in partnership with America. With a better process, the United States could have at least shown respect for allies and pushed for promises from Turkey, concessions from Iran, and so on—by asking nothing, we will get nothing.
The Syria deployment was never well thought out. But it’s both tragic and dangerous that it is ending in an even less coherent way.
On April 30, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for a discussion on “Ending the Forever War: President Biden’s Decision to Withdraw U.S. Troops from Afghanistan.”