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A nation must think before it acts.
For well over a year, American strategy in Syria has resembled that of a poker player with a weak hand who refuses to bet, refuses to fold, and insists on staying in the game despite the looming stakes of what could well be the final round. President Donald J. Trump’s irresponsible announcement on October 7 of the U.S. intention to withdraw resembles nothing so much as flashing America’s cards to its opponents. Yet, amid indications that the withdrawal will be less than equivocal, with residual forces remaining to protect oil infrastructure or carry out counter-terrorism operations, Washington still loudly insists that it can dictate the pace of play.
The human and policy costs of Trump’s decision, of course, are far more serious than any game of chance. In a fitting, dispiriting, and ultimately predictable denouement, withdrawal from northeastern Syria extracted no discernible concessions from Turkey or Russia, exposed U.S. partners and Syrian civilians to heightened danger, and cast aside concerns about the potential resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The immediate question that must be answered is whether a residual presence is justifiable and viable. Although the situation is fluid, it seems increasingly clear it may be neither—and may only lead to another round with even worse results.
Trump has never been sanguine about the deployment of U.S. forces in Syria. In April 2018, he indicated that he wanted to bring the 2,000 troops based there home. He followed that decision by declaring in December 2018 that he intended to withdraw immediately, only for that decision to be walked back to leaving approximately 1,000 troops in place. His acknowledgment to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 7, 2019, that the United States would not stand in the way of military operations to establish a so-called “safe zone” on the Syrian-Turkish border at the expense of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accelerated the withdrawal of most U.S. forces to western Iraq.
Yet, on October 23—in a repetition of the pattern of delay followed by declarations not backed by military plans—Trump suggested that “a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil” near Deir az-Zour in eastern Syria, suggesting later that the Kurds should relocate to this predominantly Arab area via tweet. Other policymakers have echoed this possibility and suggested that U.S. forces will also remain at the garrison in Al-Tanf in southeastern Syria—with an emphasis on their continuing counter-terrorism mission. To complicate matters further, some reports indicate that the United States may deploy tanks—a much heavier commitment of servicemembers and materiel—to secure the oil fields.
Such plans raise intertwined policy, legal, and military questions that deserve heightened scrutiny.
The U.S. has legitimate interests in Syria, most acutely in terms of countering the threat posed by the potential resurgence of ISIS, the ranks of which have been replenished by jail breaks in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal. With the departure of U.S. forces and the uncertain prospects of its main partner in counter-terrorism operations, however, no party stands ready to fill the void—including Turkey, the Assad regime, and Russia, which generally has avoided fighting ISIS. Ending the civil war, holding Bashar al-Assad’s regime accountable for its crimes, alleviating the suffering of displaced persons, and countering Iran are important additional objectives—albeit ones that Trump seems to have little interest in pursuing.
The relatively narrow framing of defeating ISIS may comport with the legal rationale for the U.S. military presence in Syria, but the idea that U.S. forces will secure oil fields does not. The American intervention in Syria began in 2014 on the basis of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Originally written to target those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the September 11 attacks, Congress and subsequent administrations have applied the authorization to “associated forces” like ISIS.
This central pillar is bolstered by two other authorities. The first is the 2002 AUMF, which has generally been interpreted to support the defense of Iraq and the United States from transnational terrorist threats. The second is Section 1209 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, which authorizes the Syria train-and-equip program for the purposes of “defending the Syrian people from attacks” by ISIS, “protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria,” and “promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”
When the U.S. had a larger military presence, a partner on the ground, stable lines dividing its forces from those of the Russians, the Turks, and the regime, and a wider swath of territory in which to operate, pursuing broader policy goals via a residual force was viable. The American presence even may have provided Washington with a small degree of leverage given how badly the cash-strapped regime covets oil revenue and how irritating Moscow finds the presence of U.S. forces. But these possibilities stand or fall on the legality and viability of the counter-terrorism mission. Furthermore, the operating environment has changed perhaps irreversibly for the worse, with Russian forces performing joint patrols with Turks, the SDF cutting predictable deals for its own protection with Assad, and a diminished amount of logistical support for the dwindling number of American troops on the ground.
That the United States would adjust its mission in this situation to protect oil infrastructure undercuts its moral authority and its justification for remaining in Syria. It is similarly hard to imagine that securing that infrastructure, especially given Trump’s acquisitive “take the oil” refrain, has a legitimate counter-terrorism purpose. The force protection and sustainment requirements of a small number of Special Operations Forces surrounded by newly inhospitable territory and tasked with defending such infrastructure while also supporting operations against ISIS are significant. The deployment of armored units to protect the rigs is even less credible given their even more extensive sustainment costs. Finally, the notion that the United States would leave troops to “ensure that we deny ISIS and others access to these key oil fields” as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put it on October 22 is to stretch the counter-terrorism rationale for remaining to the breaking point. Absent a clear and imminent threat to the oil fields from terrorist groups, this expansive logic could support holding any territory that ISIS could conceivably threaten in the future—hardly a clear limiting principle in a war where defining acceptable risk has never been the United States’ strong suit.
Unfortunately, we do not have to imagine the potential risks associated with a residual force built around oil infrastructure. The experience of the small garrison at Al-Tanf near the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border in the south is a potential harbinger of clashes to come. Austere, continually harassed by pro-regime forces, and miles from major counter-terrorism objectives, Al-Tanf represents an echo of past policy in Syria—albeit one in a more clearly delineated and sparsely populated battlespace than Deir az-Zour. The experience of U.S. forces conducting joint patrols with the Turkish military along the Syrian-Turkish border is similarly instructive. Who is to say that Trump won’t suddenly decide to remove forces from the remaining U.S. redoubts in Syria when a phone call goes off-script? And who is to say that Americans won’t come under fire as a result of these impulsive, unplanned decisions, as they did at Kobani on October 11 when Turkish artillery fired on a U.S. observation post?
The United States has had multiple opportunities to shape the course of the Syrian Civil War, but its reserve of chips, at least in terms of its influence on the ground, is running low. Pinning American hopes on the diminishing returns of a tenuous residual force in northeastern Syria is a classic case of “big hands, small map,” involving a president and officials with muddied objectives overstating our ability to shape outcomes on complex ground with a small commitment of troops. Now that the landscape has shifted and its influence on the ground is severely reduced, U.S. policymakers need to focus on what they can actually do to address the fallout of a war in its ninth year.
Doing so will involve using the full spectrum of America’s not inconsiderable powers. Washington can still work towards the lasting defeat of ISIS by continuing its pursuit of terrorists globally with our allies, alleviating the suffering of displaced persons beyond Syria’s borders, maintaining security cooperation with the Iraqi Security Forces, and insisting on reforms that benefit the Iraqi people. It can continue to bring political pressure to bear on Moscow to end its support for the Assad regime and exact costs on Russia and Iran for their destabilizing activities. It should seek to sanction Turkey appropriately while leaving the possibility open for better ties when it discovers the challenges of operating in Syria in its own right. And it can redirect U.S. military resources to places that are more clearly beneficial to American interests. Whether the United States can pursue these ends given the chaotic policy process of Washington and the skepticism of its allies and partners on its reliability is an open question, but it must try.
What the United States cannot afford is continued self-deception about the cards it holds now as opposed to the ones it held in the past or may hold in the future.