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A nation must think before it acts.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.
The U.S. presently maintains a force of some 2,000 troops located mostly in the northeast of Syria. These units have provided direct military support to local Syrian militias (largely Kurdish) who have been critical ingredients in the successful fight against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS). The presence of these American units is routinely criticized by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his principal backers in Moscow and Tehran. These troops have also been physically targeted in deliberate military attacks designed to intimidate the U.S. into a retreat from Syria. Nevertheless, the most significant pressures to remove these troops are not originating from inside Syria itself, but are instead being generated by U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
Bolstered by recent battlefield victories in the southwest and seeking to restore his control over all of Syria, Assad has renewed his threats to liberate the American-held zone by force if necessary. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has regularly called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and characterizes America’s military presence there as contrary to international law and a direct violation of Syrian sovereignty. In March 2018, these public calls for a U.S. withdrawal were backed by a coordinated Syrian-Russian military attack on U.S. positions in Syria during which hundreds of Syrian military and dozens of Russian mercenaries were killed in the ensuing battle.
Yet, the fight to maintain an American military presence in Syria will ultimately not be won or lost on Syrian battlefields, but rather will be decided inside the walls of the White House Situation Room.
President Trump has staked out a consistent position in support of ending U.S. involvement in Syria. As a private citizen and as presidential candidate, Trump has long railed against U.S. military involvement in Syria. At a campaign event in late March 2018, President Trump shocked the foreign policy community when he announced, “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” The very next day he also ordered a suspension of U.S. financial assistance to stabilization projects and humanitarian aid in Syria. Although the administration has subsequently refused to specify a particular date for U.S. disengagement from Syria, reports suggest that the President in March 2018 gave his advisors no more than six months to complete the destruction of ISIS before he would insist on a U.S. military withdrawal.
President Trump’s strong inclination toward total U.S. disengagement from Syria, however, will likely be strenuously opposed by his senior national security team who view a continued U.S. military presence as essential to advancing the fight against ISIS, to preserving leverage in political negotiations over Assad’s future, and to providing a physical barrier to an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. When President Trump first announced his intent to withdrawal U.S. forces from Syria, he was strongly cautioned against doing so by then-CIA Director (and now Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. More recently, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has reiterated American intentions to retain a foothold in Syria saying that the fight against ISIS is far from over and that “what you don’t do is simply walk away and leave the place.” Moreover, America’s senior military commander in the Middle East General Joseph Votel in public comments has frequently underscored the importance of a continued U.S. military presence in Syria as essential to achieving two major U.S. national security interests: defeating ISIS and curbing Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.
It is, of course, possible that the views of President Trump’s senior national security advisors will win the day and indefinitely delay a decision to precipitously withdraw American forces from Syria. However, experience suggests this is a long-shot gamble against overwhelming odds.
The smarter forecast is that President Trump will override the concerns of his national security team preferring instead to side with his long-held instincts to withdraw from Syria and let others bear the expensive costs of reconstruction. As any U.S. president, Trump is positioned both constitutionally and bureaucratically to prevail over the expert advice of his national security advisors. Moreover, he has repeatedly followed his own instincts over listening to his team as was evidenced by his earlier decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal against the considered advice of his senior cabinet including his National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State.
Consequently, senior officials in the administration would be wise to prepare for a decision by President Trump to order the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria as soon as the end of this year. The key challenge and question for his cabinet should be how to use this interregnum to shape the strategic context in which this decision is made and to develop other non-military sources of U.S. leverage that will achieve America’s principal objectives in Syria: (1) facilitating the return of the millions of Syrian refugees whose presence in neighboring states threatens further regional instability; and (2) restricting or eliminating Iran’s military presence in Syria.
One possible diplomatic tack would be to make a promised U.S. withdrawal contingent on a comparable withdrawal of Iranian military forces, advisors, and proxies from Syria. This option would satisfy at least one of Secretary of State Pompeo’s “demands” for substantive changes in Iranian behavior. Such a decision would also be applauded by U.S. allies in the region including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates who view Iran as the major regional security threat. Orchestrating a diplomatic campaign aimed at engaging Russian President Vladimir Putin and other regional players to convince Assad that a continued Iranian military presence endangers his position in Damascus will be a critical step in this path.
The Trump administration should also begin to develop plans aimed at generating U.S. political and economic leverage over the massive reconstruction efforts that will be required to facilitate the return of the 11 million Syrian refugees who have either fled the country or were internally displaced due to the fighting. It is these refugee flows that have most directly threatened U.S. security interests as they have fostered the rise of violent ultra-nationalist movements in Europe, threatened delicate sectarian balances in neighboring U.S. allies in Lebanon and Jordan, and fueled Turkish paranoia about a terrorist threat from Syria’s Kurdish population. Furthermore, as a June 2018 think tank analysis of the war in Afghanistan makes clear, the damages inflicted on societies suffering from protracted civil wars actually makes them “more prone to war in the future.”
The scale of reconstruction required to restore Syria to a functioning country whose society is neither susceptible to the perverse influence of ISIS nor dependent on foreign military aid from Iran is estimated to be anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion—well beyond the capacity of Syria or either of its principal backers in Moscow or Tehran (who are both subject to stringent U.S. sanctions) to satisfy.
One obvious means of exercising meaningful American influence on reconstruction efforts would be to directly contribute to programs while insisting that such assistance be demonstrably effective in addressing humanitarian needs of the people, that the process for delivering such assistance be fully transparent and monitored by reputable international, regional, or local Syrian organizations, and that any assistance be delivered directly to Syrians through agencies who are not affiliated with the Assad regime. In reality, such conditionalities are quite likely to mean that U.S. assistance will at least initially remain restricted in both scale and geographic reach. However, there is simply no political appetite in the U.S. for a larger, more expensive grand “Marshall Plan” for Syria today. Moreover, as a Brookings Institution analysis suggests, a more measured, limited, and locally focused approach to reconstruction in Syria is ultimately more likely to be sustainable and therefore successful over the longer term.
Even in the absence of direct large-scale U.S. financial contributions, the administration has important leverage that smart diplomacy can amplify. For instance, U.S. officials can work to coordinate and provide technical expertise to the many programs already being administered by the European Union, other allied partners, and a broad array of international and regional organizations aimed at addressing the humanitarian needs of the millions of displaced Syrians both inside and outside of the country.
Given the high likelihood President Trump will soon follow through on his pledge to withdraw American troops from Syria, the administration would be wise to begin investing and creating additional sources of non-military leverage in Syria. Doing so will require continued and purposeful diplomatic engagement with other stakeholders in Syria including Russia and all of Syria’s neighbors aimed at reducing the risks of broader military confrontation, rolling back Iranian influence in Syria, and restoring some modicum of stability to the Levant. It will also require a willingness to make at least a limited U.S. investment in the post-war reconstruction of Syria. Failing to do so will strip the United States of any meaningful ability to shape the outcomes of a post-civil war Syria and will leave the country and region more vulnerable to the nefarious influences of others.