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Have we been here before? The Implications of a US Withdrawal from Syria

Image credit: Sgt. Matthew Crane (Creative Commons: Wikimedia)

US President Donald Trump left advisors baffled and allies facing isolation with his announcement to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syria. While it may not come as a complete surprise – his rhetoric on bringing troops home from foreign conflict being one of his fundamental campaign messages – most analysts would have assumed that the importance of continued US activity in Syria would have prevailed over this goal. Indeed, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis likely presumed that the long-term strategy would have convinced Trump against a full departure – and when the president was not persuaded, Mattis resigned.

Reports indicate that the decision was made unbeknownst to most senior officials and that the US military had only 24 hours notice.

Islamic State Regrouping

Trump has consistently stated that the only reason US troops are in Syria is to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS). Now that the Trump administration claims this objective has been met, it is time to withdraw to ‘transition to the next phase of this campaign.’ Recent victories have whittled IS-controlled territory down to a fraction of what it was, but to say this is indicative of their defeat is premature. This was made patently clear when an IS-claimed suicide bombing killed three US servicemen in Syria just a month after Trump’s announcement.

The fractured yet widespread group is now refocusing on clandestine warfare and continues to possess the capability to recruit and commit to long-term guerrilla warfare. While the Syrian Defence Force (SDF) has almost regained full autonomy of the nation, it does not possess the capability or domestic support to repress and diminish the resolve of IS. Without the necessary pressure that US forces offer, IS will have the ability to reorganise, and the remaining void gifts them the opportunity to coordinate terrorist activity.

This outcome would seem tediously predictable to those who have historical knowledge of insurgency in the Middle-East. Premature declarations of victory were made in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The same effect was witnessed in the mid-2000s when the US redirected focus towards Iraq, which the Taliban used as an opportunity to regroup. Similarly, during the withdrawal from Iraq, Al-Qaeda was gifted the space to rebuild and the then-weak Islamic State the opportunity to cultivate a lasting insurgency.

Kurdish Allies

This news comes as a catastrophic blow for Kurdish forces, who have been an unshakable US ally in the fight against IS, and who are heavily reliant on US protection from Turkish and Syrian forces. US withdrawal will leave Kurdish forces isolated and effectively fighting on three fronts. Kurdish fighters were critical in pushing back against IS control, with Kurdish Peshmerga forces effectively constituting the ‘backbone’ of the current SDF.

However, without the US deterrent, Turkey receives the green-light to destroy what it views as another insurgency, which takes place partly within its territory. Turkey views the Kurdish YPG as a cover for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which Ankara (and Washington for that matter) have listed as a terrorist organisation. The withdrawal leaves them exposed to the will of Erdogan’s military and their new arsenal of Patriot missiles, which is undoubtedly another factor that influenced this decision.

The withdrawal will also isolate France as the biggest Western contributor to forces in Syria. French president Emanuel Macron will be forced to choose between taking charge of an expanded operation, or to follow suit and pull-out. Similarly, it places Israel in an uncomfortable position, as Iran will now be free to contribute permanent forces close to the Israeli border. As a part of this, US allies in Jordan and Lebanon will be similarly isolated, and likely somewhat disenfranchised after modest but reliable cooperation.

What’s the point?

One of the ongoing issues, and perhaps a contributor to Trump’s decision, is that the US has been unable to provide coherent political objectives in Syria. The Obama administration withdrew troops from Iraq only to be forced into the region again when IS took Mosul.

Reluctant to back-peddle and commit major land-forces, Obama worked through the Iraqi government, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias as proxies against IS. Obama was able to refrain from committing significant ground forces, but the Trump administration buckled under pressure to reign in the rapidly expanding IS.

Aside from previous claims that he was only maintaining a military presence in Syria to defeat IS, there are a number of speculations in regard to the timing and manner in which this decision was made. Some have argued that this may be an attempt to distract the public from his personal legal troubles at home, or that the president had been influenced by talks with Turkey’s President Erdogan. Perhaps there was even influence from Russia, and it serves Putin’s strategic interests to remove the US, however, any of these claims are difficult to verify.

What seems more likely is that the President no longer sees any economic or strategic value in staying in Syria. While this may be short-sighted, it is consistent with his foreign policy values, and may also indicate his frustration that other military partners are not pulling their weight. This hardly comes off as convincing to anyone well versed in Syria’s strategic climate, but perhaps it offers some understanding to his logic. Overall it’s a big win for Turkey, Russia and Iran, and a catastrophe for the Kurds.

Emmett Howard is the Melbourne Branch Director for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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