The Case for Keeping U.S. Troops in Syria

On October 10 in the article “Syria’s exit strategyChristopher Alkhoury argues that the United States has achieved its primary objective in Syria to eliminate the safe haven of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and should focus on negotiating a quick exit from the country to preserve US access to Syrian airspace space. and protects Syrian partners who have fought alongside US troops. At first glance, this argument seems reasonable – after all, who wants another endless war? But Alkhoury quickly refutes his arguments by pointing to the destabilizing effects of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an event that sent shockwaves through the international system even though the US-led campaign had failed and Washington had little strategic interest. In Syria, by contrast, the U.S. approach is successful, albeit modestly, and U.S. strategic interests abound. An Afghanistan-style withdrawal from Syria would deliver a further destabilizing shock, making the chaos that accompanied US President Donald Trump’s brief call for US troops out of Syria in 2019 to appear benign.

But the problems with Alkhoury’s proposal run much deeper than the Afghanistan analogy. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did not win the war in Syria, as Alkhoury claimed. Nor has the Trump administration frozen funding for Syrian humanitarian aid, as Alkhoury’s piece claimed when it was originally published (it has suspended and partially reinstated a smaller stabilization program). More important than these errors of judgment and facts is that withdrawing from Syria would endanger the regional interests of the United States and the international community. That’s why the Trump administration rejected an approach similar to Alkhoury’s in 2018, a decision that subsequent events have confirmed.

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The essential result of Alkhoury’s proposal, though he wisely tries to downplay it, would be to give the Russians greater diplomatic and military bandwidth to increase pressure on Turkey and Israel to withdraw from Syria as well. This would ultimately leave all of Syria under the control of Assad, who instigated the war, and give Russia and Iran a strategic victory. The United States will replace a relatively efficient country an operation involving only 900 troops, none of whom were killed in nearly four years, to fight ISIS on the high seas, presumably alongside a tyrant responsible for 650,000 deaths and the displacement of half his country’s population.

Assad’s efforts against ISIS are insane. In addition, US Central Command military leaders have publicly emphasized that defeating ISIS requires a US presence in Syria, not outside the country. Yes, Alkhoury is correct that Iranian-backed militias are attacking US positions in Syria, as they are doing in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. But the withdrawal encourages, not deters, Tehran.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not won the war in Syria.

In 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected a similar proposal to partially withdraw US forces from Syria and focus solely on the fight against ISIS. He concluded that this approach would not resolve the underlying civil war, based on the political compromise his predecessor, US Secretary of State John Kerry, announced in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which called for a ceasefire and a Syrian-led political transition, including negotiations with the opposition on a new constitution. Nor would it The US withdrawal is aimed at the plight of 12 million displaced Syrians and refugees who, in the absence of a political settlement, would legitimately fear retribution from Assad. Moreover, a US withdrawal would not eliminate Iran’s growing influence in Syrian institutions and its deployment of missile systems in Syria that pose a threat to Israel. The fight against ISIS, Turkey’s various security concerns, and the fate of the US’s Kurdish partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), would also remain pressing challenges for the US and its partners.

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The Trump administration has therefore relied on Kerry’s efforts to coordinate US, Turkish and Israeli military operations to freeze the conflict and deny Assad a victory. (Half of Syria’s population and 30 percent of its territory, including most of its arable land and most of its hydrocarbon resources, are still outside its control.) The United States also tried in 2019 to negotiate a comprehensive solution with Russia based on the 2019 UN Security Council Resolution 2254. And while Moscow showed little interest in negotiations, the freeze still worked. Except for small gains in 2020. At the beginning of the war, al-Assad’s forces did not capture any additional territory and the fighting was minimal. After initial hesitation, the Biden administration adopted a similar approach to the conflict in Syria.

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Decision to stay in 2018 was risky; U.S. soldiers were at risk, Turkey strongly opposed U.S. cooperation with the SDF, and new attacks by Assad loomed. But despite Turkey’s incursion into SDF territories in 2019, which prompted Trump to briefly call for withdrawal, and Assad’s and Russia’s offensive against Turkish and opposition forces in northwestern Syria in 2020, the goal of containment has been achieved.

The relative success of this strategy has only become apparent in the past four years, when a cease-fire has continued and several attempts by Arab states to ease Assad’s isolation have met with no real response from Damascus. More importantly, in an era of increasing geostrategic competition, including with Russia and Iran, the United States must avoid giving away unnecessary strategic victories. A Syrian freeze may not be pretty, but what a limited victory in Syria and possibly elsewhere is likely to look like.

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