Withdrawal of troops must not end US involvement with Syria
The hasty withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Syria not only has immediate and grave implications for the safety of America’s erstwhile Kurdish partners and the fight against ISIS, but the United States also has ceded its single greatest source of leverage to broker an end to the conflict: the remaining one-third of Syrian territory not under the control of President Bashar al-Assad and Russia.
With American forces withdrawing under pressure — from a NATO ally, no less — the instinct in Washington may be to give up on Syria, which if it did not seem like a lost cause before certainly must now. Yet to do so would be a mistake.
Key American interests are still at stake. Syria is the heart of the Middle East and its civil war remains a conflict where America’s two great strategic concerns converge — the rise of global terrorist movements and the resurgence of great power competition. Over the course of the Syria conflict, ISIS thrived among disenfranchised populations and exported its brand globally, while Russia secured a foothold in the Middle East to thwart American aims. What happened in Syria did not stay in Syria: The war’s reverberations have roiled politics in Europe, strained U.S. allies in the Middle East, and smashed long-held norms of conflict, such as battlefield use of chemical weapons.
ISIS, already re-emerging as an insurgency before the Turkish incursion, will exploit the shift in focus to reconstitute. Assad showed no willingness to change his behavior before the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and now has been given an opening to cross the Euphrates River into eastern Syria. As they have elsewhere, his security forces likely will brutalize populations recently liberated from ISIS, rekindling fighting in areas just beginning to stabilize. Iranian-backed militias will accompany Assad’s forces, enabling Tehran to link its proxies in Iraq and Syria, and in turn perhaps requiring Israel to expand its air war against them.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), pushed to choose in the existential dilemma of Turkish domination or submission to Damascus, appear to have cut a deal with Assad. Moscow is positioned to build on the Damascus-SDF deal by brokering an agreement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad that deals out Washington, and will work to peel away other U.S. partners in Europe and the Middle East that supported American policy in Syria.
Without a military presence and a local partner, the United States will not have the leverage we once had to shape events in Syria. Yet we are not powerless and should employ whatever leverage we have left to mitigate the consequences of Damascus-Moscow deal-making.
The first order of business is to protect civilians by shaping Turkey’s next steps. Congress and President Trump both announced sanctions directed at Turkey. Bearing in mind that Turkey apparently believed it secured tacit White House approval prior to its incursion and that Ankara objected to the U.S.-SDF partnership for years, sanctions should aim to shape Turkey’s actions rather than merely punish it. To start, Ankara should halt its incursion, end abuses allegedly committed by its forces and partners, avoid the forcible resettlement of refugees, and facilitate humanitarian access in all of the areas of Syria it occupies.
In addition, the U.S. should seek to broker an enduring ceasefire between Ankara and the SDF, and push Turkey to return to peace talks to end its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which lies at the root of the current fighting.
Also imperative is maintaining pressure on ISIS and other jihadist groups. To do this, the U.S. should continue airstrikes not only in eastern Syria but also in areas such as Aleppo and Idlib where the air campaign expanded in recent months. In addition, the coalition should threaten airstrikes against Assad regime targets should they engage in the mass targeting of civilians in eastern Syria. Maintaining the air campaign presumably will be harder without forces or partners on the ground, but it is critical nonetheless. Any residual U.S. presence in eastern Syria — if one is indeed viable — should be focused on supporting these activities first and foremost. The U.S. can still lead the other pillars of the anti-ISIS Global Coalition — pressure must be maintained on stopping ISIS financing, countering ISIS propaganda, and supporting the humanitarian crisis response.
The U.S. should place a premium on stability in Iraq. The U.S. partnership with the Iraqi security forces is key for preventing ISIS from once again linking its Syrian and Iraqi theaters, and denying Iran the opportunity to link its proxies in Syria with the Shia militias it supports in Iraq. Washington should make clear to the Iraqi government that the U.S. expects it to exercise sovereign control of its territory, and assist Baghdad in responding effectively to the economic and security needs of Iraqi citizens.
Finally, the U.S. must not take any other tools off the table that provide leverage for driving a political process to end the war. U.S. envoys should hasten to Europe, Asia and the Middle East to ensure that our allies continue to deploy our collective leverage — sanctions, the denial of reconstruction aid, and diplomatic isolation — to press Damascus, Tehran and Moscow to back the United Nations political process.
U.S. forces in Syria may have been withdrawn in the name of “ending the endless wars,” but we are likely to find instead that their absence makes peace and stability more elusive and puts American interests at greater risk than ever. Policymakers need to refocus on safeguarding those interests going forward with the tools remaining to them. Though much has changed in the past week, far more is unchanged: The war is not over, ISIS is not defeated, Iran is not deterred and Russia is expanding its toehold into a foothold.
The authors are co-chairs of the congressionally-mandated Syria Study Group report.
Dana Stroul is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, served as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, covering the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, and previously served in the Middle East policy office of the secretary of Defense.
Michael Singh is the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and managing director at The Washington Institute, and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. During his tenure at the White House (2005-2008), he was responsible for devising and coordinating national security policy toward the Middle East.