The U.S. Is Leaving Syria: Here’s How to Do It Right

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near the Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. (Rodi Said/Reuters)
American must not abandon its friends.

President Donald Trump stunned Washington and the Middle East with his decision to withdraw from Syria on Wednesday. He doubled down on his move the next day, asserting that the U.S. shouldn’t be the world’s policeman. While the U.S. decision has shocked allies and pleased adversaries, there is still a window of opportunity for the U.S. to do the right thing. That means not abandoning those who led the way in defeating ISIS and making sure U.S. policy in the region is not undermined.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani traveled to Ankara on Thursday, just twelve hours after Trump’s decision, and met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They discussed working together on security and stability in the Middle East. This comes just two days after the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Russia met in Geneva to discuss the future of Syria. These three countries now sense victory in Syria — and all have opposed U.S. policies.

With Washington poised to withdraw from an area in the east of Syria about the size of West Virginia, the main U.S. partners in the war on ISIS may now be attacked by Turkey or be forced to contend with a growing ISIS insurgency on their own. The U.S. is allied with a group called the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and other units recruited over the last four years of the war. The SDF liberated the ISIS capital of Raqqa last year. They have sacrificed greatly and control an area home to millions of civilians, as well as 3,000 ISIS detainees. These are the same Kurdish fighters who helped save tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi minority from ISIS in 2014.

Turkey accuses the YPG of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — an ethnic Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, which Ankara sees as terrorists — and has vowed to launch an operation against the Kurdish YPG fighters. The U.S. has supported Turkey in its conflict with the PKK over the years, and even recently offered a bounty of $12 million for the top PKK leaders. But Washington has partnered with the SDF, which was created with U.S. support and is not seen to be the same as the PKK. U.S. envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told the Atlantic Council on Monday, December 17, that the U.S. supported the SDF becoming part of a changed Syrian society that would include a new constitution and a multi-party political system. The U.S. achieved this kind of system in Iraq after 2003. Through all its flaws, Iraq is a functioning democracy today. The U.S. wanted this for Syria, but bit-by-bit the Obama administration — and now the Trump administration — has walked away from the groups Washington supported, including the Syrian rebels and now the American allies in eastern Syria.

Trump wants to bring the troops home, but the U.S. can still support the SDF by establishing a no-fly zone, as the U.S. did in northern Iraq in the 1990s, or by seriously warning against an attack on the SDF. Turkey has stood by its Syrian-rebel allies, and Russia has been loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime. While Trump wants to fulfill his promise to bring American troops home, the U.S. can still stand by its partners. Scenes of former friends of the U.S. fleeing or being forced to sign a deal with Tehran, Moscow, or Damascus, would be a catastrophic image for U.S. policy.

A larger problem in the Middle East is the growing alliance between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. With the frequent meetings of the three countries, they have found shared interests. Turkey is buying Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system. Turkey opposes U.S. sanctions on Iran, and Ankara is a harsh critic of Israel and U.S. relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. This places U.S. policy in a corner. For instance, while Iran’s foreign minister boasted of evading U.S. sanctions at the recent Doha Forum, the U.S. did not send a high-level delegation to the forum. American allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel are watching closely.

As friends and foes observe the debate in Washington, allies of the administration, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have expressed opposition to the U.S. withdrawal. Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition says that it carried out 208 airstrikes between December 9 and December 15, illustrating that the war on ISIS isn’t over. Trump says that Iran, Russia, and Syria can now fight ISIS on their own. The question is what happens to the men and women of the SDF and other allies in the fallout. The U.S. may want other countries, of which there are more than 70 in the international coalition, to pick up the slack against ISIS, but Washington must show the region that it doesn’t walk away from its friends on the ground.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum.

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