United States departure from Syria
BridgeND | Wednesday, January 16, 2019
As we were settling into our winter break, Donald Trump decided that U.S. involvement in the war in Syria should end in 30 days. The decision was rash and made despite vigorous protests from within the administration, Congress and allies.
The chaos that followed the announcement, the resignation of defense secretary Jim Mattis and the ultimate reversal of the decision, making withdrawal contingent on meeting a handful of open-ended objectives, are emblematic of much that is wrong with this administration. Process was thrown to the wind; relevant players were blindsided; the United States was made to look foolish, incompetent and fractured; and through it all, our policy has remained more or less unchanged.
Despite all this, I must agree with an administration official who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity: “‘They screwed this whole thing up, and it didn’t have to be this way,’ the adviser said. ‘It could have been a defensible decision, done thoughtfully.’”
Now that the final pocket of Daesh, a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State, control is slowly withering away, those who wish to say “mission accomplished” and pull American troops out of Syria have been met with a chorus of dissent.
The first reason given to stay is that the Daesh has not been defeated. This is mostly accurate. Both their official statements and a shift in tactics indicate that the group is reverting to insurgency with the intention to return to more conventional tactics once American pressure subsides. Others argue that whether or not a core of organized fighters survives, the conditions that formed Daesh remain, and if we leave, we will be forced to return.
While the group has been badly mauled in the campaign to destroy the territorial “caliphate,” it is reasonable to think that they will persist as an organization for a while longer. However, even if the group retained the strength and popularity to rebuild a large fighting force immediately after an American departure, a proposition that is highly doubtful, neither Iraq nor Syria is half as vulnerable as they once were.
The Iraqi security services have been honed to a fine edge through years of combat, and while building an inclusive Iraq remains a challenge, the experience of Daesh rule has turned many that once supported the group against it decisively. As for Syria, despite years of war, it is mostly united. Barring a major resurgence in violence between the central government and the Kurds, a renewed insurgency along the Euphrates river will have the undivided attention of the Assad regime. Alternatively, the Kurdish fighting forces, the very group that drove back Daesh the first time, could repeat the process, perhaps once more receiving American air support.
The second argument against withdrawal is that it would mean the abandonment of Syria’s Kurdish population, a strong ally in the fight against Daesh. In an unpleasant region, Syria’s Kurds seem to be a welcome alternative. Talk of a Kurdish state circulates despite being dismissed as impossible. More frequently, we are told that abandoning our allies now is morally wrong and the status quo should be preserved.
Unfortunately, despite their invaluable support in the struggle against Daesh, a Kurdish alliance is simply too difficult to maintain. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey all contain substantial Kurdish populations, and providing statehood for one Kurdish population opens the door to statehood for all. Such a move would be the most substantial change to Middle Eastern borders since the end of World War I and should not be undertaken lightly. Those states with Kurdish populations would resist such an endeavor, some violently. In an era of rebalance to Asia, the United States should not waste precious time, effort and energy attempting to change the borders of the region by force or coercion.
Even short of creating a Kurdish state, maintaining the status quo is difficult. We have allowed a situation to develop in which a de facto Kurdish state exists, guaranteed by American military power. Active tensions between this entity and American ally Turkey, a nation that we are treaty-bound to defend under NATO’s Article 5, do not bode well for the future of this arrangement, nor do the conflicting forces of Kurdish nationalism and the Assad government’s stated commitment to retaking the entire country.
Ultimately, leaving now will not be pleasant, but the alternative is an indefinite commitment that the American people will not long support. Our competitors, namely Iran and Russia, stand to gain little from our departure and have largely already achieved their objectives. From influence to bases, much that they looked for from their engagements is already theirs, and continued American presence is unlikely to change that. Allowing the conflict to be resolved without a seat at the table will mean a post-conflict Syria that we will be unhappy with, but it will mean a resolution. Staying will only prolong the inevitable.
Griffin Cannon is a senior studying Political Science from Burlington, Vermont. The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the individual and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.