US Must Begin Bolstering Regional Allies to Mitigate Fallout from Syria Withdrawal
Sometimes big things do come in small packages – 91 characters, to be exact. In one tweet President Trump abruptly declared mission accomplished in Syria and initiated a precipitous U.S. withdrawal that gives ISIS a lifeline while handing the strategic heart of the Middle East to Iran. The United States urgently must begin bolstering key regional allies to mitigate the fallout of this decision.
Certainly, this is not the first time America has sought to wind down its military commitments quickly or suddenly, but the conditions for doing so in Syria are far from ideal. Trump administration officials acknowledge ISIS is not eradicated. Our partners on the ground, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are capable fighters but rely on U.S. equipment, training and air and artillery support. They also must keep one eye on the constant threat of Turkish attack, which will only become more likely with the United States gone.
The decision to withdraw from Syria therefore dangerously resembles America’s hasty exit from Iraq in 2011. Much like Trump with Syria, campaign promises more than metrics of success on the ground drove President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq.
Obama’s premature departure created a security vacuum, promptly filled by Shiite Iran, that deepened alienation among Iraq’s Sunnis. This encouraged violent sectarians like ISIS, whose rise Tehran then used to justify tightening its grip over Baghdad, and so on.
Leaving Syria now portends a repeat. With ISIS still capable of reconstituting itself and Iran no longer checked by U.S. forces along the Euphrates, the twin scourges of Iranian expansionism and Sunni extremism will further fuel each other in a vicious and incredibly destabilizing cycle. Turkish intervention that distracts the SDF from fighting ISIS would magnify this chaos.
The U.S. departure also removes the biggest remaining physical obstacle to Tehran’s consolidation of a corridor stretching unhindered through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah, the Mediterranean, Golan Heights and Jordan. Comfortably astride this “land bridge,” Iran could more readily threaten U.S. allies by entrenching missiles and proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon.
As with the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the unenforced redline against Assad’s chemical weapons use, hastily leaving Syria also will undermine the credibility of other U.S. commitments.
Having publicly staked itself to using U.S. forces as leverage for ensuring Iran’s departure from Syria, the Trump administration is undermining its own strong rhetoric against Iran. This will layer more Iranian appetite for regionwide aggression on top of increasing opportunities to do so. It will also make Tehran’s and Moscow’s support for Assad look better and better in comparison to Washington’s capriciousness toward its own partners.
Despite the challenges now facing them, American policymakers can take immediate steps to address these new capability and credibility deficits. Given the readiness of certain allies like the SDF and Israel to push back against our shared adversaries – plus the depreciating value of U.S. verbal guarantees – these steps should focus on reassuring and strengthening our partners. Most immediately, this means giving them hard power assets to defend against the threats that will only grow as U.S. forces depart.
The SDF is a motivated and effective combat force, but one that will need ongoing assistance to further attrite ISIS, secure liberated territory – including valuable agricultural and energy fields – and have some leverage against the predations of Assad and Erdogan. The United States must provide its Syrian allies with equipment that gives them at least a chance to keep the pressure on ISIS while preserving themselves and their hard-won gains against ISIS.
Withdrawal also raises the risks for Israel of major conflict with Iran and its proxies, first and foremost Hezbollah and its lethal missile arsenal. When it comes, this conflict will impose unprecedented operational demands on Israel, making it vital for the United States to ensure its ally has sufficient capabilities to deter and when necessary defeat this threat as quickly and decisively as possible.
As the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) recommended in a recent report, the United States should frontload its ten-year, $38 billion memorandum of understanding on defense assistance to Israel – without adding a penny overall.
The United States also urgently must replenish and update its stockpiles of prepositioned weapons in Israel, emphasizing precision-guided munitions and missile defense interceptors (the latter of which also help shield Jordan). This could be expedited by relocating prepositioned stockpiles from other countries less threatened by the consequences of U.S withdrawal from Syria.
By no means will these steps completely countervail the decision to abandon the fight against ISIS and, with it, strategically critical territory in Syria. But as Middle East tensions worsen as a direct result of U.S. withdrawal, giving our allies more tools to defend themselves will at least send a concrete signal that America still stands by its friends and values regional stability.
Originally appeared in The Hill on December 21, 2018.