Is Pulling Out of Syria an Effective Strategy?

“We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land, and now it’s time for our troops to come home.”

President Trump’s unsurprising surprise Twitter (where else?) announcement that the U.S. was pulling troops out of Syria caused waves immediately upon its release on December 19th of last year [1]. His self-professed “only reason for being [in Syria] during the Trump Presidency” was the Islamic State (I.S.), who he announced was “defeated” [7]. This utterly unfounded declaration of victory has, since then, rightly been scaled back by Trump’s administration and other folks in Washington, who all seemed just as taken aback as we were. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went so far as to resign, citing great difference in opinion on many foreign policy matters, Syria being one [8]. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tried to clarify Trump’s original statement, mentioning that we’d just “defeated the territorial caliphate” [9]. National Security Advisor John Bolton subsequently said U.S. troops would stay in Syria as long as I.S. and Iran did (so… forever?) [10]. Then the President made a swing, saying that now our allies would have to fight I.S., which he so readily proclaimed defeated, on their own.

After this diplomatic scrabbling, very little has changed. The pullout announcement seemed to give new life to I.S., which carried out a bombing in Manbij, killing four U.S.-affiliated troops and staff, as well as Syrian civilians. Other than a slight shift of equipment, the situation remains the same, other than a sharp drop in global respect for the U.S. [3]. Not that we were doing well at that before the Twitter Diplomacy took over.

Despite a relatively small physical presence in Syria—an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 troops [2]—U.S. involvement in the conflict has been continual for the greater part of five years, a legacy of entanglement ill-suited to a hurried exit. U.S. entanglement in Syria may have been a poor choice in the first place, and really, when has the U.S. not made poor diplomatic choices in the Middle East, but pulling out now will only disadvantage our allies, make our enemies stronger, and further destabilize a region we’ve already ruined through misguided foreign policy and premature pullouts.

Our involvement in Syria began in 2014 during the Obama Era with bombing campaigns against the then-rapidly expanding Islamic State [4]. We also trained S.D.F. allies, providing air support for tactical campaigns against the Islamic State and, sometimes, the Syrian government [13]. Sometimes, we “accidentally” bombed civilians as well.

Trump has long abhorred U.S. involvement in Syria, expressing that we should “stay the hell out of Syria” back in 2013 [5]. But the president couldn’t just stay the hell out of the conflict he inherited from President Obama. Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent for Foreign Policy, remarked: “the Syrian civil war is a no-win situation. If you want to back the rebels, you end up supporting radical Islamists […] If you seek to support the only force capable of defeating the rebels, you end up backing a war criminal” [6].

As the initially-lauded victory against I.S. remains elusive—the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates 10 to 15 thousand I.S. militants are still operating in Syria, with even more next door in Iraq [12]—U.S. foreign policy decision-makers still must consider what a rapid withdrawal means for the various groups still involved in Syria.

Is it wise to leave the S.D.F. and Kurds high and dry—“In the middle of the road,” as the father of one dead fighter told C.N.N. [15]—forcing them to choose between Turkish oppression or alliance with the notorious Syrian regime? To allow Iran and Russia to cement the greater regional power they’ve gained in this 8-year-long proxy war? To allow war criminal and all-around sinister “president” Bashar al-Assad to go back to disappearing his citizens and oppressing the population with the blessing of the “greatest democracy on earth”? To give the Islamic State a chance to bounce back without a concerted effort against them [14]?

No.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t applaud U.S. interventionist policy by any means, and we’re no white knight in the Syrian conflict—just look at the record of coalition air strikes against civilians—but a rapid exodus from Syria is not the way to go about solving our “finger-in-all-the-pots” problem. Some analysts believe, with good reason, that although Syria is of strategically little significance to the U.S. in the long run, a full American exodus will repeat the mistakes, subsequent massive blowback, and decade-long problems of Obama’s commensurate pullout from Iraq—the pullout which, interestingly, spawned the beginnings of the Islamic State, the organization we are fighting and failing against today. How beautifully cyclic.

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[1]https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1075528854402256896

[2]https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/19/politics/us-syria-withdrawal/index.html

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/01/23/sanctioning-assad-is-very-least-united-states-can-do-syria/?utm_term=.e9192a887e85

[4]https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/12/19/syria-troop-withdrawal/2361385002/

[5]https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/346063000056254464

[6]https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/08/the-problem-with-americas-syria-policy-isnt-trump-its-syria/

[7]https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1075397797929775105

[8]https://assets.bwbx.io/documents/users/iqjWHBFdfxIU/r1s3MmEom1_8/v0

[9]https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/19/politics/us-syria-withdrawal/index.html

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/bolton-us-forces-will-stay-in-syria-until-iran-and-its-proxies-depart/2018/09/24/be389eb8-c020-11e8-92f2-ac26fda68341_story.html?utm_term=.35ad9d03a820

[12]https://www.csis.org/analysis/islamic-state-and-persistent-threat-extremism-iraq

[13]https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/04/08/523016523/what-is-the-u-s-goal-in-syria

[14]https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/12/21/what-the-u-s-withdrawal-from-syria-means-for-isis-iran-and-kurdish-allies/

[15] https://news.yahoo.com/countries-involved-syrias-war-072933719.html

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Sage Smiley

Writer at BYU Political Review
Sage Smiley is an earthy gal from Portland, Oregon. Sage is a double major in journalism and Arabic and minoring in chemistry. She feels passionately about refugees, feminism, and the fact that orcas are still kept in tiny tanks. Sage enjoys long walks through Savers, tea, odd socks, sushi, and witty banter.

Sage Smiley

Sage Smiley is an earthy gal from Portland, Oregon. Sage is a double major in journalism and Arabic and minoring in chemistry. She feels passionately about refugees, feminism, and the fact that orcas are still kept in tiny tanks. Sage enjoys long walks through Savers, tea, odd socks, sushi, and witty banter.

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