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Stay in Syria to counter Iran

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Regardless of the past decisions which drew the United States into the conflict in Syria, we should not abandon our role in the fight against the Islamic State. A withdrawal would give back all that we have achieved and would be an abandonment of our Kurdish allies. The void we would leave will create space for other power players with interests adverse to ours, like Russia and Iran, to gain ground in the Middle East.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga have had great success in pushing back ISIS fighters from Northern Syria and Iraq, and Kurdish forces currently hold captive more than 2,700 members of the Islamic State. As well as an being an important ally in the fight against the Islamic State, Kurdistan has the potential to be a countering force against Islamic radicalism in the Middle East.  We need a strong, and preferably independent, Kurdistan.

{mosads}Due to their moderate interpretation of Islam and tolerance toward other religions, unless the United States supports them, the Kurds will become a target for attack by other less tolerant Muslim-majority countries like Turkey and Iran. The Turkish government considers the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to be terrorists. While perhaps challenging, it is a worthwhile diplomatic and strategic pursuit to bring the parties together and forge an alignment between the Turks and the Kurds for the benefit of the region. The United States has a preeminent role in this effort.

Furthermore, United States withdrawal from Syria will create a power vacuum that Iran and Russia are more than ready to exploit to strengthen their influence in the Middle East. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned over the decision to pull American troops out of Syria.

Russia and Iran have been active players in the Syrian conflict. Russian troops currently control large swaths of territory in Syria and have aligned themselves with Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. Iran is similarly aligned and continues to strengthen its base in Syria as a key element in its Iran-Lebanon axis of control. American retreat will strengthen this Shiite nexus of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the predominately Shiite government in Iraq and al-Assad’s Syria. The strengthening of Hezbollah and empowering of a hegemonic Iran is not in our national interest.

Further, it is highly unlikely that Turkey could (or would) step in to protect American interests in Syria in the event that we withdraw. President Erdogan’s express disrespect towards American officials does not instill confidence in the future of the United States-Turkey coalition in Syria or in Turkey’s role as a NATO ally. On Jan. 8, he refused to meet with National Security Advisor John Bolton to discuss security guarantees for the Kurdish forces. Two days later, on Jan. 10, President Erdogan stated that he would not wait for American troops to pull out before attacking those forces. This past week he reached out to oppose the United States in an area far from home when he recognized the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Turkish troops are stationed on the northern border of Syria right now and President Erdogan is threatening to deploy them against our allies the Kurds. This would divert resources from the fight against ISIS in central Syria and endanger the American troops which are still there.

The United States must carefully consider the implications of a withdrawal on stability in the region and of a potentially resurrected ISIS.

Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 19th District. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.

Tags Francis Rooney James Mattis

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