Both the Obama administration and now more acutely the Trump administration have made catastrophic mistakes in Syria that are costing the United States. Both administrations underestimated the extent to which NATO ally Turkey would go to protect its own interests, how Russia and Iran would rally behind Bashar al-Assad, and that the Assad regime’s pernicious form of governance was the central driver of conflict in Syria—of which the Islamic State is a symptom. Instead, the United States chose to focus narrowly on countering the Islamic State by working with local partners alongside a coalition of international allies. The coalition was successful in eliminating the Islamic State’s territorial control and building a semblance of inclusive, subnational governance until last week’s rupture.
The United States worked most closely with the highly capable and reliable People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization. For Turkey, the PKK is an existential threat. With devastating irony, this was the tragic flaw in the U.S. approach—the foundation upon which U.S. presence in Syria was built was cracked from the outset. Coalition efforts to strengthen it held longer than expected and likely could have lasted long enough to achieve U.S. objectives and depart responsibly. But it could not withstand a precipitous decision to leave the field entirely. So, it collapsed.
The implications of U.S. failures in Syria are grave. First, five years of counterterrorism gains have evaporated. Tens of thousands of Islamic State detainees under YPG control will soon either join the ranks of the Islamic State insurgency or be transferred to the Assad government’s control. Assad has a history of using extremists to destabilize neighbors and to taint domestic opposition to legitimatize his oppression. Second, U.S. allies and partners now have serious doubts about U.S. credibility, putting at risk U.S. ability to forge future coalitions. Third, the YPG’s deal with the Assad regime, understandable for its own survival, has now ushered Assad and Russian forces into the northeast, potentially enabling the reestablishment of Assad’s control over an additional one-third of the country. Fourth, the benefits of U.S. presence in Syria’s northeast to deter Iranian proxies and military buildup has now been removed, although a small garrison of forces at al-Tanf near Jordan’s border remains for now. The United States has squandered its leverage in Syria. Russia will try to capitalize upon the U.S. withdrawal to move toward a Syrian political settlement in concert with its interests.
Conflict will continue to shape Syria, with international reconstruction assistance and the return of refugees remaining aspirational goals obstructed by corruption and insecurity throughout Syria. U.S. economic pressure on Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Assad government to shape their behavior may extract minor concessions but will not strategically impact the course of the conflict. Still, the United States has major stakes in Syria and should take the following steps. First, building upon the U.S.-Turkey brokered ceasefire, it should pressure Turkey, Russia, and their proxies to protect civilians, refrain from indiscriminate targeting, and enable humanitarian access. It should also expedite transfers of local Syrian partners who request protection from retribution by the Assad regime to neighboring countries, Europe, and the United States.
The United States should accept a portion of its military’s partners for resettlement akin to the visa program used for partners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, it should press European allies and other countries to transfer and repatriate their Islamic State detainee citizens from YPG control before they escape. In parallel, it should negotiate U.S. air space access with Russia over northeast and eastern Syria to target high-value terrorist cells and bolster U.S. security cooperation with Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to counter Iranian proxy and Islamic State expansion. Third, it should prioritize diplomacy to end the Assad regime and Russia’s assault on Idlib in northwest Syria, work to restore U.S. air access to conduct surveillance and targeted counterterrorism operations , and seek to deter the Assad regime from targeting civilians via a possible U.S. punitive military response .
Retaliatory strikes should only be used as a last resort. Fourth, it should expose the predatory behavior of the Assad government, Russia, and Iran via public diplomacy and information operations. It should enable international efforts to document war crimes and promote accountability via individual states. Finally, the United States should pair efforts to encourage inclusive policies toward Syrian refugees with increased economic and humanitarian assistance to Lebanon and Jordan, and it should accept an increasing number of Syrian refugees in 2020 to shoulder part of the refugee burden. These are admittedly mitigation steps, but they reflect the reality of the balance of leverage the United States has in the aftermath of its recent decisions. However narrow the U.S. approach in northeast Syria proved to be, the manner in which the U.S. forces have been directed to extricate themselves from northeast Syria is morally reprehensible and contrary to U.S. values. Ending the “forever wars” in places like Syria has political resonance, but it must be done responsibly.
Melissa Dalton directs the Cooperative Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She served on the congressionally-mandated Syria Study Group in 2019.
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