Withdraw US forces from Syria now — every day we delay increases our risk

Withdraw US forces from Syria now — every day we delay increases our risk
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A Russian reconnaissance plane was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea on Monday when it was mistaken for an Israeli warplane by Russia’s own ally, Syria. This event serves as a sober reminder of how easy it could be for one faction in the cauldron of the Syrian civil war to mistakenly attack another — and highlights the risk to American troops on the ground there.

America continues to sustain enormous strategic risk by maintaining its 2,000 troops in Syria while providing virtually no benefit to U.S. national security. They were originally sent there to aid the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to uproot ISIS from their capital of Raqqa, which they successfully completed in 2017. Since that tactical mission was accomplished, Trump would be wise to redeploy our troops as soon as possible, eliminating the risk they face.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan recently announced a new plan that would create a “demilitarized zone” in Idlib. The proposal would ostensibly disarm all the rebel factions so as to protect the three million civilians living in the area.

While this declaration has stopped the Syrian attack into Idlib for the moment, it is far from certain whether the estimated 30,000 mainly al Qaeda and ISIS-backed rebels will agree to disarm by the required mid-October deadline. After seven years of fighting a brutal and inhumane civil war, it is possible the radical Islamic groups aren’t planning to disarm, but are using the pause to strengthen defensive positions in preparation for a future attack by regime forces.

Turkey claims to be motivated by concerns for the millions of innocents trapped in the province. “We will prevent a humanitarian tragedy,” Erdogan said at Monday’s signing ceremony, “which could happen as a result of military action.”

More likely, however, is Erdogan’s desire to disarm the rebels in Idlib he doesn’t like — Tahrir al-Sham — as a buffer next to his border while protecting the rebels in Idlib he prefers —the National Liberation Front (NLF).

There are many and competing armed factions within the Idlib pocket, frequently with shifting alliances. The group Turkey currently favors — the NLF — is itself a conglomeration of more than a dozen smaller rebel groups, many of which were radical Sunni terror groups in their own right. But today’s rebel allies can be tomorrow’s enemies, as each is devoted to its own ideology, not to any national benefactor. And therein lies the problem for the United States

Whether one considers the 12-member NLF, the many al-Qaeda backed factions, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Syria, or Israel, each has its own identity and pursues its own interests. For those engaged in the civil war, the interests are life-and-death and they will spare no effort to accomplish their goals.

As demonstrated Monday when an Israeli attack spawned an errant Syrian ground-to-air missile attack that killed Russian service members, sometimes when one party pursues its interests it results in a fatal clash with another party. The 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Syria are likewise daily at risk of an accidental or miscalculated attack by any of the dozens of actors in the civil war.

Already Russia has twice warned U.S. military that it may conduct offensive operations in areas where U.S. troops are located, and U.S. troops refused to move, conducting air strike exercises on Syrian territory.

Whether on purpose or an accident, if U.S. troops are ever attacked and killed by Russian, Syrian, or Iranian military forces — or any of the competing rebel factions — the situation could rapidly escalate and threaten to suck America even deeper into an armed conflict in which the country does not have a vital interest at stake.

There will be no winners in the Syrian civil war, only survivors, and with the exception of the Syrian Democratic Forces, none of the actors are pro-American.

There is nothing in Syria for the U.S. military to win. It is time that the United States, like the other actors in the region, acted primarily out of our own self-interest and withdraws our troops and let the Syrian civil war come to an end.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.