by Mitchell Plitnick
When Donald Trump announced that he was immediately removing all U.S. troops from Eastern Syria, I was surprised by the reaction. There was near glee in anti-war corridors. The initial response is understandable; the United States should not be in Syria, and that is true for many reasons. Moreover, many of those objecting to the decision are doing so because it doesn’t fit with their objectives to heighten tensions with Iran and continue to pursue endless conflict in the name of fighting terrorism. But leaving the way Trump intends is foolish and will not lead to a good outcome.
Conservative voices were quickly raised against Trump’s decision. Lindsey Graham called it an “Obama-sized mistake,” and Marco Rubio said it was “a grave error that is going to have significant repercussions in the years and months to come.” Both senators objected to Trump’s decision because they believe the United States should remain in Syria until ISIS is completely wiped out. They’re wrong.
Trump found support from unusual corners. Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, a frequent and sharp Trump critic, “applauded” Trump’s decision, tweeting, “Neither the Obama Administration nor the Trump Administration had a strategy. Neither Administration could articulate why we were in Syria, what the end state would be, and how we would achieve it.” Lieu is certainly correct in his statement, but how will he feel about the decision when he sees its ramifications?
This issue was not entirely of Trump’s making. It was Barack Obama who put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, with the purpose of wiping out ISIS. Lieu is quite correct to complain about a mission that had no real strategy, and certainly not a clearly defined endgame. Trump’s intention—first put forth on the campaign trail—to get the U.S. military out of Syria was the correct one, and it still is.
Unfortunately, it’s no longer so simple as just pulling the troops out. The American presence in Eastern Syria has be come part of the strategic landscape. Removing it with even less thought and care than we employed when we went in, as Trump is proposing, will have consequences. I am frankly surprised that so many critics of not just the U.S. presence in Syria but the folly that is the “global war on terror” are not considering these aspects more than they are.
It is easy enough to dispatch with the complaints from the Washington Post editorial board. The Post wrote, “The president promised to finish the job of destroying the Islamic State, but the withdrawal will leave thousands of its fighters still in place. He vowed to roll back Iran’s aggression across the Middle East, but his decision will allow its forces to entrench in the country that is the keystone of Tehran’s ambitions. He promised to protect Israel, but that nation will now be left to face alone the buildup by Iran and its proxies along its northern border.”
The 2000 troops in question are not going to finish off the remnants of ISIS. One of the keys to success against ISIS has been that, unlike most terrorist groups, they were territorial, making them more vulnerable to conventional military force. Now that they are largely scattered with only a few small patches of territory, they will again be able to regroup from attacks, recruit new members and stage unconventional warfare. If they were to stay in Syria until ISIS was completely eliminated, U.S. troops would be there endlessly on these terms.
The Trump administration’s obsession with Iran had led national security adviser John Bolton to bluntly state that the U.S. would be in Syria as long as Iran was. Again, this was a recipe for a near-permanent presence. Iran was not going to be forced out of Syria by 2000 U.S. troops, especially since neither the Assad government nor Russia wanted them to go. Yet both of those countries have no desire to see Israel escalate its attacks inside Syria, especially not so far toward the eastern frontier near Turkey. Their concerns will be a far more effective buffer against any potential Iranian adventurism. Indeed, Iran itself is much more interested in ensuring its reach across the Levant to Lebanon than it is in taking potshots at Israel. The situation is far from stable, as we’ve seen in the past year. But the U.S. presence in Eastern Syria has done little to mitigate it. Ever since 2017 when Trump agreed with Putin—over strong Israeli objections—to allow for a “cease-fire zone” that was really an area where Iran could operate unhindered, the Netanyahu government has looked to Moscow, not Washington, to keep the Iranians in check in Syria.
The Post’s objections actually argue for leaving Syria, not staying. Granted, the decision does not fit with the rest of Trump’s hostile policy in the region, but neither does leaving only 2000 troops there. The mere presence of those troops, with no plan of action, was not going to advance Trump’s policy goals, and Trump was not about to anger his base with a significant increase in U.S. troops in Syria.
The Turkey Factor
The question is not whether the United States should leave Syria—clearly we should. But this is not like leaving a party early. Even the relatively small U.S. presence has made a strategic difference in eastern Syria. The sudden withdrawal Trump is planning is sure to leave a vacuum which other forces will try to fill.
The most immediate concern is Turkey. Laura Rozen at al-Monitor reports, “Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria came in the wake of a phone call between him and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday in which Erdogan said Turkish forces could finish off IS remnants and other terrorist groups, Syria experts said.”
Those “other terrorist groups” surely referred to the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been working side by side with US forces in battling ISIS in the region, and which depends on the U.S. presence to deter Turkey from attacking it. This is not the first time Erdogan has threatened such an attack, but the proximity of the latest threat to Trump’s decision strongly suggests that Trump took the threat seriously and backed away, abandoning his erstwhile allies. That image is bolstered by the fact that Trump also recently agreed to sell Turkey a battery of Patriot missiles, and even said he’d consider extraditing Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in the U.S. whom Erdogan has accused of masterminding the attempted coup against him in 2016. All this, it seems, is being done to dissuade Turkey from buying a Russian missile system.
It is very likely that the US departure will mean a massive assault on the YPG, with unpredictable results for the Kurds and for Turkey, as there could well be Kurdish retaliation. Beyond that, other groups vying for some part of what they once hoped would be a Syria they could carve up could escalate their activities in the vacuum created by a sudden U.S. departure. None of these ramifications seem to have been part of Trump’s thinking. By all accounts, he made this decision without consulting his closest advisors or anyone else. The announcement caught other top U.S. officials by surprise, as it did NGOs in the area and European leaders. This is why it is so shocking that there is so much liberal support for Trump making this move.
Done properly, a U.S. departure from Syria could be a huge step forward. Arrangements for some provisional governing structure could be made. Or at least some plan between Russia and Turkey could be worked out to avoid the Turkish attack that Erdogan is planning and to work cooperatively to prevent a descent into violence. As Rob Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group, told Rozen, “The challenge in carrying out this old-new policy, assuming this time it sticks, is to do so in a manner that does not precipitate a military free-for-all in the northeast for which the Kurds will pay the price.”
It is possible that the troop draw-down—expected to take 60-100 days—might spur quick action to negotiate and avoid reigniting the flames in eastern Syria. But it is even more likely that such a hastily assembled meeting would fail or would produce an arrangement that wouldn’t work.
Had Washington made an effort since the last time Trump promised to quit Syria to pursue diplomatic and military channels and prepare the ground for a U.S. departure, this might indeed be a day to celebrate.
But that’s not Trump’s way. He acts on his whims, and if lives are destroyed by the hundreds or even thousands as a result, they don’t matter to him anyway. That’s what’s happening here. In our zeal to see the U.S. out of Syria, we are overlooking the why and how of our departure. In this case, they make all the difference in the world.