Many observers raise legitimate concerns about President Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. For example, there is indeed the risk that the local allies of the U.S. on the ground — the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — will face attacks from their adversaries, most notably Turkey, which regards the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) by virtue of the Kurdish YPG component’s links with the PKK. In such a context, it is possible that the Islamic State will be able to exploit a vacuum and regain some lost ground, thus going contrary to Trump’s proclamation about the defeat of the Islamic State.
However, it is worth asking why Syria policy has ended in the announcement of an abrupt withdrawal. While it is easy to point a finger at Trump himself, many advisors, policymakers, and analysts who pushed for continuing the U.S. presence indefinitely are also to blame for this debacle.
Trump had always been consistent on his own preferences: namely, that he wanted to finish the fight against the Islamic State territorially and then bring U.S. troops back home. Many of the “stay indefinitely” crowd, though, failed to give reasoned consideration to his preferences and tailor recommendations and strategy accordingly. Instead, they hoped that Trump would simply come to ignore Syria policy and allow them to run the show with no presidential or wider public oversight.
As a result, a combination came about of pushing dubious aims without the formulation of a contingency plan that would have honestly addressed the most serious problems. The most notable case of the former was framing the U.S. troop deployment in Syria in terms of an unrealistic “counter-Iran” angle.
Besides the fact that it was not clearly explained how the troop deployments constituted “countering Iran,” many advocates of this policy set aims that were totally divorced from the ground situation, such as insisting that Iran withdraw its forces and that Iranian “proxies”/“Iranian-commanded”/“Iranian-backed” forces withdraw from Syria. Never mind that many “Iranian-backed forces” in Syria are in fact units of Syrian personnel and fighters, and as such calling for their withdrawal from Syria makes no sense. In reality, seriously “countering Iran” would have required dismantling the Assad-led order in Syria — which none of these policymakers and analysts was actually willing to consider.
Meanwhile, more pressing issues that needed to be addressed as a safeguard against a sudden withdrawal scenario were not given due consideration. Above all, the problem of tensions between Turkey and the SDF was never honestly addressed. Instead of dealing with the issue of the SDF-PKK ties, policymaking focused on stating vague platitudes about acknowledging Turkish security concerns while working on supposed solutions at a local level that did not confront the bigger problem. Thus, for instance, a “roadmap” for the Manbij area in the north of the country was devised in an effort to appease Turkish concerns. The “roadmap” was supposed to entail the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and joint Turkish-U.S. patrols in the region. However, it was always clear that Turkey’s objections were not only about the SDF in Manbij but the SDF’s presence on the northern border on both sides of the Euphrates River.
What was really needed was a wider détente of some kind between Turkey and the Kurdish-led SDF. By extension, of course, this détente would have meant restarting a PKK-Turkey peace process. Not only would these measures have been necessary to avert Turkish artillery shelling and a possible attack on the SDF-held areas but also to ensure the long-term viability of the SDF-held areas even if no Turkish attack ever took place. As I observed during my time in SDF-held areas this year, one major problem was the Turkish economic blockade of those areas’ long northern border with Turkey, stifling economic life and generally isolating the territory from the wider region (with the exception of a small crossing along the Tigris River with Iraqi Kurdistan).
Those who would have advocated simply ignoring Turkey in this regard showed little consideration for the scale of aid money the U.S. would have had to pump in to ensure viable reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Besides the scale of damage in places like Raqqa which were retaken from the Islamic State, the northeast of Syria has historically been the poorest region of the country and is particularly vulnerable to problems like drought, which will certainly become worse with climate change in the coming years.
As such, reducing the SDF-held areas’ isolation would have made sense from a counter-Islamic State perspective (ensuring the group’s “enduring defeat” by not allowing it to exploit dire conditions to resurge) and also from the angle of putting political pressure on Damascus to make concessions to SDF-held areas. After all, if the SDF-held areas were not isolated, there would be no need to rely on Qamishli airport in the northeast, which is controlled by the Syrian government, to bring in supplies like medicines.
It might be the case that no deal could have been worked out between the SDF and Turkey, but at the same time there were no serious and honest attempts at working out a settlement. Instead, the tendency was to treat this issue as a mere annoyance while putting forth an obsessional and unclear “counter-Iran” case. That Turkey had multiple ways of undermining and pressuring the U.S. (e.g. by massing troops on the border, shelling the SDF-held areas, creating problems for Saudi Arabia over the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul) was not taken seriously.
In the end, the various policymakers and analysts who pushed the “indefinite presence” line should not claim to have been taken by surprise. As analyst Aaron Stein predicted in April, if policymakers and the national security staff did not set out “middle-ground options” that did not account for Trump’s views, the risk would be a “messy, hasty withdrawal.”
How unfortunate that this advice was not heeded. It should certainly be borne in mind for future conflicts in which a push for an indefinite presence runs counter to the instincts of the president and wider public. It is also relevant if Trump somehow backtracks and agrees to one more extension of the troop presence on the official counter-Islamic State mission that is the reason for the U.S. presence in Syria.