President Trump ruffled quite a few feathers both here in the United States and abroad when he tweeted out a few days ago that our troops were being pulled out of Syria. The President said, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” which he said during the Presidential campaign of 2016 that he would pull us out of there once elected.
We currently have about 2000 troops, mostly Special Operations forces in Syria. They were initially sent there in 2015 by then-President Obama as the civil war in Syria reached a point where the Islamic State (ISIS) had taken advantage of the chaos and carved out a huge swath of Syrian territory as their own, calling it a “caliphate.”
Now the civil war is approaching its 8th year. ISIS is on the run definitely, now controlling just 1 percent of the territory they possessed a few years ago. They are locked into a small enclave around the town of Hanin where they have endured airstrikes from coalition partners.
Part of Trump’s reasoning is that he doesn’t want to help the Syrians (not a US friend in the region), stabilize their own country. While true, the situation remains much deeper than that. There are so many other players involved, it is an extremely fluid situation. Number 1 on the US agenda should be the Kurds.
The Kurds (Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF) were the Americans’ best allies inside the country. The U.S. Special Operations Forces inside Syria have provided training, advising and equipment to fight ISIS and they’ve (with massive US air support) made significant gains against the ISIS forces there. The SOF troops are the only buffer between the Kurds and the Turkish forces that have invaded from the north.
A rapid pullout of U.S. forces sends a bad message to any would-be ally in the region. The French, who worked with the Kurds in Iraq several years ago during the first Gulf War have said that they’ll step up and take the place of our SOF with the Kurdish people.
The Turks, while still technically a member of NATO are growing increasingly anti-West in their sentiments. They pushed into northern Syria because they feel that the Kurds are terrorists. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to launch a new offensive against the U.S.’s Kurdish allies unless the U.S. promises to cut off aid to them.
The Turks have supported non-Kurdish Syrian opposition groups, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) since the civil war began. Their biggest worry remains that gains made by Kurds in Syria would embolden the Kurdish population in Turkey to seek independence. Turkey has already launched two operations to help Syrian rebels capture territory from ISIS and the Kurds. And they are threatening more.
Russia has been a longtime Syrian and Assad ally. They provided the regime with air support, as well as troops on the ground. President Putin is trying to keep his biggest foothold in the region and at the same time spread their influence in the region.
The Russian air support which initially targeted ISIS has now spread to targeting other resistance groups including the FSA of Kurdish forces. This past winter a group of Russian mercenaries and Syrian troops attacked a joint US-Kurdish base in a “mistaken” operation and were decimated by airstrikes.
The Iranians, intent on spreading their influence in the region began by offering military advisory assistance to the Assad regime. But now they have several thousand troops in the area and are building bases close to the border with Israel, which they are also doing in Lebanon. The U.S. believes, and rightfully so, that the Iranians are preparing for a long-term presence in Syria. Tehran has spent $16 billion in the area to destabilize the countries of Syria, Yemen as well as Iraq.
So with the President calling for a United States withdrawal in the country, there is definite pushback even among his own administration and political party, calling it a big mistake. Back in June, the President floated around a plan for an all-Arab army to replace the U.S. in a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned against a premature withdrawal that bought some time for those in the administration that wanted to remain. However, with the news that the U.S. is indeed pulling out, Mattis announced he was retiring in February. Obviously, the reasoning behind the timing of Mattis’ retirement was in protest over this latest flap. In his letter of resignation, Mattis said that the President had a right to a Defense Secretary “whose views are better aligned with yours” on policy.
Now Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition to defeat Islamic State (ISIS), has resigned as well. McGurk was an Obama administration appointee and was due to leave in February but his letter of resignation states that his last day will be Dec. 31.
McGurk in December 11 press conference called the idea of leaving Syria too soon reckless and added that the “enduring defeat of a group like (ISIS) this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave.”
“Nobody is saying that they are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive,” he said. “So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”
McGurk led the way for the secret talks with Iran where the Iranians released prisoners in return for boatloads of cash.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. called the Trump decision to leave Syria early an “Obama-like decision”. He added, “I don’t know what they’ve done, but this is chaos.”
There have been many positive results because of the albeit smaller but very effective U.S. Special Operations presence in Syria. ISIS has been largely destroyed and removed from nearly all of the areas that they controlled. The northeastern portion of Syria has been stabilized. The Iranian attempt at expansion has been blocked and the Russians have also have been checked as they are no longer the only power brokers in Syria.
What will probably happen now is that the country will again become destabilized as the Turks and their proxies will do their own bidding in the north? They’ve already been accused of massive human rights abuses in Syria and no one believes that will cease without the coalition there. The Kurds? They will bear the brunt of our leaving. The Kurds wanted their own autonomous mini-state within Syria. No one believed that would ever happen. But when the Turks bullied Trump and the U.S. into withdrawing, it is an ominous sign that worse times may yet lay ahead of our allies there.
Some of our troops will remain across the border in Iraq but any incursions into Syria now for our Special Operations Forces would be fraught with peril. Will any other members of the administration be able to talk the President out of an early withdrawal? That will bear watching.
Photo of US Special Operations Forces: DOD