President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria sparked a Turkish invasion of Kurdish-held territories, jeopardized security gains against Islamic State terrorists, and completely undercut U.S. leverage in the region. The decision, which the president reportedly made without consulting advisers or allies, has led to a resurgence of violence in Syria and bipartisan disapproval in Washington. In order to safeguard U.S. interests in the Middle East and salvage a deteriorating situation, the Trump Administration should maintain what is left of the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria, bolster strategic ties with Iraq, and wage an aggressive campaign to prevent an ISIS regurgence.
President Trump is said to hold a transactional view of international security, yet there is one issue on which he remains uniquely ideological: terminating what he calls “endless wars”. However, the removal of approximately one thousand U.S. troops from northern Syria did not end a war; it reignited one. The U.S. troops in question provided a remarkably stabilizing presence in an otherwise volatile region. As retired Marine General John Allen described it, “If we were going to draw a circle around a group of American troops who are more important right now to the stabilization of any place on the planet, it’s that thousand troops.”
Does the U.S. Have a Syria Policy?
U.S. foreign policy towards Syria stands in a state of disarray. The rhetoric does not match the reality. The Trump Administration holds to the Obama-era demand that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “must go,” yet no longer takes direct action to achieve it. The administration claims to oppose Iranian influence in the region, yet troop removal invites it. Lastly, the administration still considers the Kurds as allies, yet seems wholly disinterested in defending them. The president risks sending the message to allies and adversaries that he is all bark and no bite, or as one columnist deemed it, “He speaks loudly and carries a toothpick.”
While the president’s recent withdrawal decision throws the region into a state of chaos once more, the administration’s strategy up to this point deserves some praise. As opposed to the grand troop deployments and nation-building strategies that have proved to be futile in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syria approach marked a leaner, less-expensive footprint which achieved U.S. objectives no less. Using only a handful of American special operations forces and air power, the United States worked with local allies in a support role to stabilize a notoriously troubled region, destroyed the ISIS caliphate, and countered both Russian and Iranian influence. The president could have stayed the course and declared his administration’s policy the basis for new strategies to fight 21st century wars, a new “Trump Doctrine” perhaps. Instead, the president’s ideological aversion to overseas engagement led him to declare an early victory and abdicate U.S. leadership in the region.
The United States should now construct a coherent policy to restore regional stability and protect U.S. interests. The policy should center upon the following concepts:
- Maintain existing U.S forces in Syria to preserve regional leverage;
- Enhance strategic cooperation with Iraq to sustain their fledgling government;
- Continue working with local actors to prevent an ISIS resurgence.
Maintain U.S. Forces in Syria
Though the president announced his intention to remove all U.S. ground forces from the country, reports have now surfaced that he is considering leaving a small contingent to protect Kurdish-held oil fields and conduct counterterror operations. The president should follow through on this plan, given that the presence of U.S. forces would serve as a tripwire preventing foreign aggression against the Kurds, and would sustain U.S. capabilities to eradicate ISIS.
With as little as a few hundred troops, the United States. can retain leverage in the region and remain an important arbiter in Syria’s future. By securing Kurdish-held oil fields, U.S. forces would be denying a valuable source of hard currency from falling into the hands of ISIS insurgents and Bashar Assad’s murderous government in Damascus alike. When the ISIS Caliphate first formed, they sold oil on the black market to finance their expansion and consolidation. Without this funding source, ISIS would be hard-pressed to reconstitute itself as a territorial entity. In addition, the presence of U.S. military forces gives the United States much-needed leverage in pushing for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. American soldiers provide the backbone to diplomatic efforts; they do not deter it.
By securing Kurdish-held oil fields, U.S. forces would be denying a valuable source of hard currency from falling into the hands of ISIS insurgents and Bashar Assad’s murderous government in Damascus alike
Enhance Strategic Cooperation With Iraq
The United States should commit to enhancing strategic cooperation with Iraq. While Americans may cringe at the thought of a robust U.S. presence in Iraq, the reality is that U.S.-Iraqi cooperation stabilizes the region and prevents the rise of malign actors which could threaten U.S. national security. Iraq is important because it serves as a state buffer to Iranian influence and because its weak capacity to govern its own territory led to the initial rise of ISIS. This cooperation can be achieved without large numbers of U.S. troops, but rather through a diplomatic surge accompanied with a comprehensive economic aid package targeted at addressing government shortcomings and citizen grievances.
Racked with widespread anti-government protests and citizen unrest, Iraq finds itself in a precarious situation. The protestors demand a more transparent political system, an end to widespread corruption, and a more level economic playing field. If the Iraqi government is unable to produce reforms and quell the protests, it could fall victim to external pressure and disintegrate into sectarian civil war. Iraq’s collapse would present an opportunity for Iran to strengthen its influence via Shiite militias, and could produce the conditions for ISIS to reemerge in the country. The United States thus has an interest in promoting Iraqi political reforms, funding economic development projects, and reinforcing the rule of law.
Keep the Pressure on ISIS
Though the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS has been successful in destroying the territorial caliphate, much work still needs to be done to ensure the group does not rise again and present renewed threats to U.S. national security. President Trump’s assertions that ISIS is defeated are not only wrong, but are also dangerous. By removing U.S. troops from Syria, the Trump Administration is falling prey to the thinking that the U.S. can pull back without consequences. As a previous U.S. troop withdrawal from the region in 2011 demonstrated, subsequent power vacuums have a way of altering the strategic landscape and imperiling U.S. interests. In the 2011 case, the U.S. withdrawal allowed for radical insurgents to exploit the Iraqi government’s poor power projection capabilities and declare the Islamic State in the first place.
The recent killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi underlines exactly why the United States must maintain a presence in Syria. The operation to kill al-Baghdadi was predicated upon all of the things that U.S. troop withdrawal would do away with: collaboration with local partners, peer-to-peer intelligence-sharing, and forward-deployed U.S. forces. And while al-Baghdadi’s death destabilizes their leadership, one should not ignore the recent gains that U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria has already allowed ISIS to achieve. As Kurdish forces rushed north to defend against the Turkish invasion, large numbers of ISIS detainees escaped from Kurdish-operated prison camps throughout Syria. It is possible that these escapees will attempt to coalesce once more and carry out the fight against U.S. and coalition forces. The killing of Osama bin Laden showed that terrorist organizations are capable of continuing to operate absent their spiritual leaders. ISIS is wounded, but not yet defeated.
The Way Forward
Syria presents challenging policy questions that do not lend themselves to easy solutions. The United States was able to further a number of strategic interests in Syria and the greater Middle East by the forward deployment of approximately one thousand soldiers in northeastern Syria. As the Trump Administration moves away from this force posture, it should protect national interests by maintaining what is currently left of U.S. forces in Syria, strengthening bilateral cooperation with Iraq, and continuing an aggressive campaign to eradicate ISIS. Such a strategy will require investment and patience, yet an opposite strategy of withdrawal and abdication will produce reverberations for U.S. national security not just in the Middle East, but around the world.
Jonathan Coleman is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and countering organized crimes. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His professional experience includes five years as a law enforcement officer.