Consequences of the US Withdrawal from Syria
President Donald Trump announced that his administration would lift sanctions on Turkey after the Turkish government agreed to permanently abide by a ceasefire in northeast Syria. Instead of withdrawing all troops, a few hundred will remain not to re-engage against a resurging Islamic State but instead to protect Syrian oil. Trump’s announcement completes America’s abandonment of its one-time Kurdish partners, is a severe blow to the counterterrorism mission and has done permanent damage to America’s credibility abroad.
With the Kurds turning to Russia for support after the U.S. withdrawal, the permanent ceasefire the president announced amounts to an agreement between Russia and Turkey on how to divide northern Syria. Absent a deterrent American presence on the ground, Russia now sits at the fulcrum between the Kurds, Bashar al Assad, Iran, and Turkey and is rapidly expanding its role as a guarantor of security and diplomacy between regional players.
On the other hand, the United States has thrown away a reliable Kurdish partner, despite the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) embodying what President Trump has most often demanded of allies, namely that they shoulder their fair share. If anything, the SDF had proved themselves more capable and resolute than most of America’s other regional partners.
Most importantly, Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds has damaged America’s credibility. The value of America’s word, and consequently its deterrence, rapidly diminished as the world watched Turkey, with Trump’s explicit blessing, attack the United States’ former partners.
Erdogan intends to use the Turkish side of the ceasefire zone as a haven for millions of refugees currently in Turkey. This is ethnic cleansing, designed to push Kurds out of their homeland along the Turkish border. It is hard to imagine a scenario where this hastily-improvised ceasefire line becomes anything other than a breeding ground for radicalized Arabs and Kurds alike.
Sunni and Shia extremists catalyze each other in this type of environment, using propaganda about their Islamic adversaries’ atrocities to justify their own. Despite President Trump’s hasty proclamations of victory against Islamic State, the downfall of the physical caliphate earlier this year shifted the conflict without eliminating it. ISIS detainees have already escaped and the threat of further prison breaks grows as the fighting intensifies. Likewise, Iran touts its self-processed role as guarantor of Shiites to justify its expanding presence throughout the Middle East. America’s withdrawal justifies the insurgency these groups have been patiently waiting to launch and reinforces this vicious cycle.
Moreover, the Kurds and the U.S.American troops embedded with them were enviably situated on strategically critical territory astride Iran’s land corridor across the heart of the Middle East. Abandoning the Kurds is therefore at least as big a win for Iran and Russia as for Turkey.
Iraq is also watching Trump’s failed Syria policy with concern. Much like when the United States hurriedly departed Iraq in 2011, the U.S. is willfully abandoning fragile but real victories. The Iraq government was already balancing itself between America’s geopolitical strength with the long border it shares with Iran, but Trump’s precipitous withdrawal with drive Baghdad to expand its relations with Tehran.
For the time being, American troops can limit some Iranian activity in the small corner of Syria it current but could find themselves quickly surrounded and overwhelmed without sufficient supply lines compared to the much greater Russian and Iranian presence on the ground.
At best, keeping a small force in Syria allows for some modest intelligence- gathering and could serve as a surge point if Trump or a future president decided to put troops back into Syria. In fact, the remaining U.S. troops are more at risk and operationally contained without the backing of the larger American presence on the ground.
Trump’s failures may offer Congress an opportunity to wrest back some of the foreign policy powers it has conceded to the presidency over the years. With Trump removing his own sanctions on Turkey, additional sanctions legislation may be the best option. Yet, Congress will have to ensure the president enforces the sanctions, which he has failed to do against Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems and now after Turkey’s invasion.
As we argued last winter when the president announced his initial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the United States needs to send concrete signals that America still stands by its friends and values Middle East stability. To this effect, the U.S. should reinforce support for Israel, who remains an extremely capable and willing regional security partner. As Assad, Iran, and its proxies strengthen their presence on its northern border, Israel will need to double down on its campaign between the wars, raising the risk of conflict.
Trump greenlighted the Turkish invasion and has quickly cut and run from Syria. America’s adversaries and allies are dealing with the fallout now, but the U.S. will eventually have to reckon with this unforced error.
Originally published in The Defense Post.