This op-ed was published by The Washington Post on December 27, 2018.
President Trump’s Dec. 23 tweet promising a “slow and highly coordinated” withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria may ease the gnashing of teeth among officials and analysts in Washington, but it won’t end the criticism of his decision. That is precisely why the president should view the hullabaloo that erupted after he announced the Syrian pullout as an opportunity to take a number of steps to make the most of his essentially correct, but widely unpopular, move.
Many observers have asserted that the withdrawal gives victory in Syria to Russia, Iran and the Syrian government. That’s absurd. Bashar al-Assad’s regime already controls about two-thirds of Syria, including all of the major cities. The portion of Syria that U.S. forces control alongside their Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies is mostly either desert or drought-prone plains. The oil fields there produce high-sulfur, low-value crude, and production has long been diminishing. Oil revenue made up only about 5 percent of Syrian gross domestic product before the 2011 uprising, according to the International Monetary Fund. In sum, holding northeastern Syria would not have enabled Washington to leverage any important concessions from Damascus, Tehran or Moscow.
Stability, not a deeply embattled Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone, is the vital long-term U.S. interest in northeastern Syria. Turkey can accept with conditions the return of Syrian government forces into the area, as Russia and Iran want. Ankara dislikes the Assad government, but it dislikes more the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish region along its border.
The United States’ erstwhile friends, the Syrian Kurds, have always allowed Damascus to keep its security offices open in northeastern Syria; the Kurds never closed that channel of communication. If anything, the Syrian Kurds prefer the deployment of Syrian government forces along the Turkish border to deter Ankara. Agile Russian diplomacy should be able to secure the deal for an orderly, perhaps gradual, deployment of those Syrian government forces into the region formerly controlled by the United States.
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