In response to an earlier Aug. 5 article by Elizabeth Tsurkov, Daniel Serwer published a “not so progressive case for withdrawing from Syria” on Aug, 8, arguing that to remain would be to guarantee “inevitable” “negative consequences,” including the “sacrifice [of] troops in a lost cause.” Though current circumstances are undoubtedly challenging, they are nowhere near as dire as Serwer suggests, nor are they irreversible or without a realistic purpose. A genuine assessment of the costs and benefits of staying in Syria requires more than presenting pessimistic, worst-case scenarios. Moreover, a measured strategy for “staying,” when tailored to help achieve specific realistic goals, does not equate to “an indefinite presence in Syria” — a phrase all too often lumped together with “forever wars” in today’s American electoral cycle.
What happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. We ought to have learned that lesson by now. The first three years of the Syrian conflict brought us ISIS, the most powerful and wealthy terrorist organization the world has ever seen, along with its now global network of “provinces.” It also catalyzed a massive refugee flow that has crippled Syria’s neighbors and destabilized European politics, fueling populist and far-right movements. War crimes were, and continue to be, a daily affair, committed with total impunity. The global norm against the use of chemical weapons has been demonstrably eroded. In more recent years, Iran has expanded regionally like never before, and Russia has emerged as a genuine competitor to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Although Syria in 2019 may look different from Syria in 2014, none of these issues have been resolved; most are likely to sustain themselves into the future and many may yet worsen.
There is no doubt that President Donald Trump’s December 2018 withdrawal announcement has weakened America’s hand in Syria, even despite the partial walk back since. But our current deployment of roughly 1,000 troops in Syria’s east and northeast remains the single biggest deterrent to a unilateral Turkish cross-border intervention; to cross-river attacks by pro-regime forces; and to Iranian adventurism within our zone of control. Our presence also empowers our long-time partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to remain in opposition to the regime and to move — albeit slowly — toward having a position at a Syria-wide negotiating table. While certainly not a solution, our presence also affords us more influence over Iran’s ambitions in eastern Syria than we’d have if we left, and it has a re-assuring effect on our ally Israel, amid its more kinetic campaign against Iran and its proxies. More broadly, by remaining in Syria, even with an ambiguous future or within an unrealistic policy vision, the United States is a more credible actor than it would be if it promptly left — an act that would destroy our influence in Syria for good.
Given the country’s dire outlook and myriad local, regional, and international threats to security, the U.S. should remain in Syria — at the very least for long enough to secure conditions in which a realistic set of objectives could be achieved. These would revolve primarily around the existing counter-ISIS mission and the benefits associated with continuing it:
- ISIS is sustainably contained by an SDF force re-trained and advised by U.S. troops to conduct its new mission: an intelligence-led law enforcement and counter-insurgency operation against ISIS;
- Eastern and northeastern Syria is stabilized and provided the space and opportunity to administer itself efficiently and democratically, using a network of local councils comprised of local representatives independent of the Assad regime;
- A limited and sequenced safe zone is negotiated and implemented in northeastern Syria, distancing the Turkish military from Kurdish components of the SDF, thereby leaving the SDF protected (from Turkey) and secure enough (from pro-regime forces) to negotiate more favorable conditions for its future; and
- The U.S. has re-consolidated its presence in Syria’s northeast in such a way as to re-acquire at least most of the status it enjoyed in Russia’s eyes pre-December 2018, with sufficient leverage to have a meaningful impact on broader Syrian diplomatic issues.
Since late 2014, the United States has found itself present and engaged on the ground in Syria, in a mission limited strictly to countering ISIS. Over time, this counter-ISIS mission has — for right or wrong — come to define America’s Syria policy, and today it remains the most credible pillar upon which to do so. After all, ISIS’s territorial “caliphate” may have become a thing of the past in late March 2019, but the group remains a serious threat. ISIS now maintains thousands of sleeper cells across Syria and Iraq, which are collectively sustaining a “resurgent” insurgency, to use the term the Department of Defense (DOD) employed in a deeply negative August 2019 assessment. In its quarterly report, the DOD was also clear in diagnosing why the ISIS threat remains and why the future prognosis is so concerning: the U.S. has halved its troop numbers in 2019, in line with a presidential directive ordering a partial withdrawal from Syria. At the most pivotal moment in the counter-ISIS campaign, when ISIS had its nose pressed to the wall, the U.S. gave it breathing room. If considering ISIS alone, the fact that some would now propose a total withdrawal from Syria as a logical next step is simply baffling.
On the ISIS issue, Serwer suggests that the U.S. should instead “rely on the self-interest of the Russians and Turks” to combat the jihadist group — despite the fact that both have pitiful records in doing so and neither in any imaginable scenario would see ISIS as a priority after a U.S. departure. Turkey would evidently continue its obsession with combating the Kurds, while expanding the territory into which it can force Syrian refugees to return — acts that would fuel ISIS’s resurgence, not vice-versa. Meanwhile, Russia has more than enough to worry about today, so after an American departure, it would have to balance those already existing distractions (in Idlib, Deraa, Damascus, and with Iran more broadly) with a need to balance Turkey, the Kurds, Arab tribes, and Iran in an inevitably chaotic free-for-all environment. ISIS has posed a serious challenge in the regime-held central desert for months now, but Russia decided in the spring that its energies were better spent elsewhere. For Moscow, combating opposition forces will always take precedent over fighting ISIS — as it has every day since Russia intervened nearly four years ago. ‘Letting others take on this job’ was a mindset that drove decisions in 2013-14, with catastrophic results. There is no reason why we should assume things would be any different in the future.
Some of the challenges Serwer notes, such as Arab-Kurdish friction, are justified, but they are the result of America’s ambiguous posture in Syria — something that undoubtedly needs resolving, were we to stay. In past years, the SDF was an impressively cohesive umbrella for otherwise disparate and potentially rival local players, but since the territorial defeat of ISIS and President Trump’s partially reversed withdrawal announcement, Washington has been remarkably vague about the scale, scope, and duration of our presence. A set of three policy objectives — an enduring defeat of ISIS; the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria; and a meaningful political settlement, through which the Assad regime changes its behavior — that can at best be described as optimistic and at worst as wild fantasy, has not done us or the SDF any favors.
The SDF will remain as united and cohesive as before when the U.S. is deemed to be a strong and credible partner whose forces have both feet on Syrian soil, rather than one. Likewise, U.S. strength, particularly in torrid, chaotic, and fluid conflict environments like Syria, will always be a reflection of our strategic clarity and the durability of our presence. It’s about time this was rectified.
The DOD’s recent report made for some seriously sobering reading and should serve as a wake-up call for President Trump. He has remained in Syria primarily to prove he is better than Obama, who he accuses of withdrawing prematurely from a still unstable Iraq, leaving a vacuum into which destabilizing actors leaped and creating conditions in which ISIS explosively re-expanded. Syria in 2019 is immeasurably worse than Iraq in 2010, so leaving now would only lead to dire consequences. Whatever the president’s gut instincts, a mini U.S. “re-surge” of hundreds of troops would be necessary to re-assert ourselves, to re-assure our partners, and to re-deter our adversaries. This is a far cry from the “30,000 troops and 4,000 police” Serwer suggests, which if realized would actually risk destroying the "by-with-and-through" dynamic we’ve established in eastern Syria with our 70,000-strong SDF local ally.
A good deal of concern is often expressed — with good reason — about the cost of military operations, such as Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria. However, far too little appreciation is given to the considerable advantages of having pursued operations there with a light-footprint, by-with-and-through local partners like the SDF. This approach has been effective and comparably inexpensive and should be sustainable, provided a well-informed leadership is making the right decisions. While operations in Iraq between 2007 and 2008 cost the U.S. over $300 million per day, 24 hours of operations in Syria and Iraq since 2014 has been at least 22 times less expensive, at roughly $13.5 million. Likewise, while any military death is to be acknowledged as a great loss, in nearly five years of combat operations, the U.S. has lost seven soldiers in Syria — compared to 3,736 in five years of combat in Iraq between 2004 and 2008. When comparing the two models — 160,000 troops in the Iraq War and 1,000-2,000 in Syria — it is clear that a heavy-footprint approach in Iraq resulted proportionally in as many as six times more troop fatalities than the by-with-and-through strategy in Syria. There’s no doubt there’s a cost to remaining in Syria, but it’s negligible when compared to the examples that are all too often used to argue why we should leave.
For now, the State Department’s Syria Transition Assistance Response Team (START) is close to being — if not already — back on the ground, pursuing its critically important stabilization activities in coordination with a network of local and regional actors. Thanks to generous donations, this stabilization mission is funded with minimal U.S. cost. Saudi Arabia has proven especially invested in this non-military mission, both financially but also in person, with Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan a repeated visitor to the northeast.
By remaining in Syria until now, the U.S. has also warded off a unilateral Turkish incursion into SDF territory — a nightmare scenario for our SDF partners and a dream for ISIS. Make no mistake, a U.S. departure from Syria would see the SDF lose the most, while malign actors — Assad’s regime, Iran, Russia, and ISIS — would gain immeasurably. By leaving Syria, the U.S. would quite literally be abandoning the SDF to a de facto defeat, as events that led up to Turkey’s intervention in Afrin should make clear. Back then, before giving a greenlight to Turkey, Russia did propose an alternative deal to the Kurds in Afrin, which in simple terms amounted to surrendering everything to Damascus. Nothing dissimilar would be on the table were we to leave.
Recent statements by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan indicate a new willingness to explore avenues for a Turkish-PKK ceasefire. That is an opportunity U.S. policymakers have only dreamt of since intervening against ISIS in 2014, in terms of its potential to set the scene for a more orderly and potentially manageable U.S. departure from Syria. While the details of a U.S.-Turkey safe zone remain in the works, the core structure of such a deal is clarifying and the recent formation of a U.S.-Turkish military-military center in Turkey to work on this issue is a promising sign. I find it hard to understand why a U.S. withdrawal from Syria at this point in time would do anything but ruin the chances of avoiding the worst-case collapse into internecine chaos we should all fear for eastern Syria.
In the end, the U.S. has no especially good options when it comes to Syria; the few potentially promising ones were scuppered years ago. But for now, the U.S. is engaged in a meaningful mission — countering ISIS — that is tailored to achieve U.S. national security interests. That challenge remains ever present, as does our need to continue. The argument in favor of departing Syria has been made by many, all sincerely, but none have made a case that credibly demonstrates how it will make today’s situation any better — for the United States. Many proponents of leaving Syria highlight the risks associated with staying, but what they fail to acknowledge is that the simple act of leaving will exacerbate the majority of the problems they highlight in the first place — which happen to be why we’re there today. That is not a logical argument.
The challenges and risks associated with being in Syria have been clear since we got engaged in late 2014 and when compared to the situation we faced then, today’s tests are more acceptable. Syria looks set to remain riven by internecine violence and instability for years, if not decades, which is an outlook in which threats to U.S. national security and regional interests will unquestionably result, just as they did in 2014. A premature departure from Syria now would inflame existing problems and guarantee future threats that the U.S. would have to confront, but without any future means of doing so after a chaos-inducing departure.
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and director of MEI's Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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