Withdrawal of all US troops from Syria — not a partial repositioning — should be American policy

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Setting off a diplomatic, military, and political firestorm last Sunday night, Trump initially green-light a long-sought Turkish military operation to sweep Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) out of northern Syria. After receiving criticism from many of his most stalwart Republican defenders, Trump seemed to walk back that permission. This entire episode, however, graphically highlights why the United States should have long ago withdrawn all troops from Syria — and why Trump should do so now.

At the heart of the bipartisan criticism being leveled against the president is an appalling lack of understanding about America’s interests in Syria. The Washington Post editorial board warned that all American troops could be “forced” to, “withdraw entirely, which would be a major victory for Russia and open the way for Iran to entrench its forces along Israel’s northern border.” 

The newspaper might do well to recognize that Russia has been an ally of Syria for decades, so there is nothing for them to “win.” It will take years for Syria and Russia to even get back to the status quo antebellum, much less pose an increased risk to Israel (and Israel is the most powerful military power in the region and can defend itself from any threats).

Aside from missing this obvious reality, however, entirely absent from the torrent of criticism is any analysis of what is presently at stake for the United States, and whether the military’s operation there ever made sense. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.

Conventional wisdom says that our Kurdish partners in Syria did America a huge favor in routing ISIS from their so-called capital of Raqqa, and without their help, we would still be at risk from ISIS. Therefore, the thought goes, the Kurds deserve — and we owe them — our continued support. The premise, however, is flawed from the start, and thus the conclusion that we “owe them” is also wrong.

Then-President Obama announced his intention in September 2014 to engage in combat operations in Syria — without bothering to seek, much less obtain, required Congressional approval — to, “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. ISIS, he believed, was a major threat to the United States and unless we took action, we would be at risk of a new spate of terror attacks. But his fear was unfounded and his chosen means to solve the problem unnecessary, adding unnecessary risk to America.

As I first wrote three years ago, ISIS was always a dead man walking. They never had the capacity to retain the Syrian and Iraqi territory they seized, and owing to the threat to Baghdad and Damascus ISIS legitimately represented — not to mention the indirect threat posed to multiple other secular regimes in the Middle East — ISIS was never going to be allowed to survive, with or without American assistance.

While these radical Islamic terrorists did represent a threat to Middle Eastern regimes, they did not, however, pose a risk to American security. The safety of our homeland has been ensured, for the better part of two decades, by a robust global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance strike capability (ISR-Strike), coupled with an increasingly effective cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement. 

ISIS was entirely consumed with its daily survival and overwhelmed with the Herculean task of trying to administer the territories they seized; they never had the capacity to attack America from their bunkers in Syria and Iraq. Obama, then, should have continued to focus our ISR-Strike capabilities on the region to safeguard against threats emanating from any actors or groups, and preserved American military power by refusing to entrench us in a conflict from which we gained nothing.

Instead, Obama progressively deepened and expanded U.S. military engagement in Syria. Partnering with the SDF was never necessary for American security. Many accuse Washington of using the Kurds for our own benefit and then abandoning them. To the contrary, the Syrian Kurds were the greatest benefactors of our military excursion into Syria (along with, perversely, the Assad regime and the Iraqi government in Baghdad), as we effectively loaned the U.S. Air Force to the Kurds to level Raqqa and drive ISIS out of their cities and villages.

ISIS represented a direct and lethal threat to the Kurds but none to America. We therefore do not “owe” the SDF permanent use of the American Armed Forces to defend them against the Syrian government. 

As has been the case since 2014, ISIS in Syria and Iraq — indeed, anywhere they exist abroad — does not represent a threat to us that our powerful ISR-Strike and law enforcement agencies can’t handle. There is nothing to win in Syria yet much to lose.

The most rational and realistic course of action President Trump can take now is to order the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq and Syria, conducted as sensibly and quickly as possible. 

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.

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