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Putting the Syria Withdrawal in Perspective

U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s Dec. 19 announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria triggered a firestorm of criticism that continued throughout the holiday season. The conventional wisdom is that the move will reverse the gains made against Daesh (also known as ISIS). However, the biggest casualty of Trump’s maverick political style – coupled with the highly charged partisan atmosphere in the country – is sound analysis, especially regarding foreign policy. In this case, there has been very little examination of battlespace dynamics to support the inference that the move is as bad as it is made out to be.

Examining the Facts

In a New Year’s Eve tweet, Trump said that the exit of 2,000 U.S service members from Syria would take place over four months. This revised timetable came within a fortnight of his original decision to pull out within 30 days. The 120-day period is what the Pentagon needs to arrange an orderly withdrawal from the northeastern facilities in the Levantine country. The controversy comes amid not only growing criticism from retired military commanders but also the resignations of Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS.  

A chronic problem with much of the analysis is that most observers fail to distinguish between political rhetoric and reality. There is a dire need to separate Trump’s statements – crudely driven by his domestic political imperatives – and the actual policy itself. Of course, the logic of the 24/7 news cycle, exacerbated by the advent of Twitter (and the president’s heavy reliance on tweets) makes this extremely difficult. Commentators are perpetually in a race to supply inferences on the fly.

Moreover, they invariably cannot examine a policy issue without allowing their bias to inform their assessments, which is terribly counterproductive. In addition, the voluminous responses to the Syria withdrawal have largely ignored the actual mission of the 2,000 troops in question and the nature of their operations. There’s a reason why the overwhelming response has been alarmist. Most of those who have weighed in on the issue have said that the withdrawal would lead to catastrophic outcomes.

These outcomes include an ISIS resurgence, Russia and Iran expanding their footprints in the country and the region, Turkey enhancing its influence in the country, and abandonment of our Kurdish allies. However, the 2,000-strong task force is too small to make a critical difference in the fight against Daesh, let alone counter Russia and Iran. These troops filled a support role for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) militia, whose fighters have been the frontline forces battling Daesh. We should also be mindful of what is it that we could really expect from the SDF militia.

The Kurds’ Situation

Syria’s Kurds have been fighting Daesh because the jihadists remain active in areas bordering the region under Kurdish control. In addition, fighting Daesh brought the Syrian Kurds major U.S. support that they needed to protect themselves from a hostile Turkey. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party and its military wing, the Peoples Protection Units, as a terrorist organization allied with Turkey’s Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers Party. Therefore, it is in Turkey’s interests to not have Syrian Kurds gain control of more territory because of their battles with Daesh.

That said, one fact about the Syrian Kurds is rarely represented in alarmist reactions: There are limits to how far the Kurds want to go in fighting Daesh. Certainly, they are not willing to expend their resources to the complete destruction of the jihadist entity. Their goal is autonomy within Syria and protection from Turkey. The destruction of Daesh is well beyond their capabilities because it would require them to occupy Sunni Arab territory, which would actually work to the jihadists’ advantage.

The Kurds’ mission has always been to push Daesh out of urban centers and into remote, rural areas to limit their activities. The next stage, to ensure that Daesh does not mount a comeback, is a long-term goal that will require a Sunni Arab force. Certainly, 2,000 U.S. troops cannot accomplish that task. That will require a larger and far more complex arrangement with the Syrian regime via Russia, Turkey (which is in the process of reviving Sunni Arab rebels), and the Iranian-backed Shiite-dominated regime across the border in Iraq.

A Practical Path Forward

With as many as 170,000 troops in Iraq, the United States could not eliminate Daesh’s predecessor — a much smaller entity. Daesh grew because of the underlying geosectarian aggravations over the years that will not be addressed anytime soon or resolved by military might. A few thousand U.S. troops will not contain Russian and Iranian influence or unilaterally wipe out Daesh in Syria — a fact that policymakers and military strategists should admit. Moreover, a couple of thousand U.S. troops were not protecting the Kurds from Turkey. Bluster aside, Turkey knows it will have to work with the Syrian Kurds just as it did with Iraqi Kurds.

Syria is a shattered state in which different powers enjoy influence through their respective proxies. This situation will not change for a while. At best, what can be done is to ensure that entities like Daesh do not exploit the situation while the powers in question sort out a longer-term solution. To do this, the United States needs to use military power judiciously and focus more on complex diplomacy. Alarmist policy assessments – weak on analysis and driven largely by partisan impulses – don’t help the policy-making process; if anything, they make matters worse, especially during the current presidency.

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a National Security & Foreign Policy Specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.