Recent U.S. policy in Syria, from the moment that former U.S. ambassador Robert Ford showed support for Syrian protesters in 2011, has been one of good intentions that were mismanaged through conflicting policies. This week it led to the decision to withdraw. A new crisis will unfold in eastern Syria, an area that, liberated from ISIS, has seen too much war and where the people are just beginning to reconstruct their lives. Many are expressing feelings that the U.S. betrayed its partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are mostly Kurdish. The larger context is that the U.S. has been seen as abandoning one group after another in Syria, reducing American influence in Syria and the region.
It is at least the third time that President Donald Trump has sought to leave Syria. In March 2018, he said that the U.S. was leaving “very soon.” In December 2018, he wrote that the U.S. was bringing the troops home after defeating ISIS. In fact, ISIS was not defeated on the ground until March 23, 2019, in its last pocket near the Euphrates river. ISIS sleeper cells are still active, and there are thousands of ISIS detainees in eastern Syria. However, Trump now says that Turkey or other countries will need to deal with the remnants of ISIS and the detainees in Syria.
How did the U.S. get here? In 2011, Americans were outraged by scenes of Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracking down on protests. There was bipartisan support for backing the Syrian protesters and then the Syrian rebels. At the time, the Obama administration had a vast spectrum of options, from giving them anti-tank missiles to carrying out airstrikes against Assad and punishing him for using chemical weapons. But Obama walked back from his 2012 red line on the use of chemical weapons.
Washington shifted from directly opposing Assad to training and equipping Syrian rebels, a program that cost up to $1 billion and was largely seen as a failure by 2015. By this time, the U.S. was working on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the “Iran deal,” and the overthrow of Assad, who is backed by Iran, was no longer a priority. ISIS had exploited the Syrian conflict to take over a third of Syria and Iraq, controlling the lives of 12 million people and committing genocide. The U.S. began anti-ISIS operations in Syria in September 2014 and helped the Kurdish fighters in Kobane resist ISIS. From there grew a unique partnership between the U.S. and these leftist Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey accused of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the U.S. views as terrorists. The U.S. supported the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 in eastern Syria, as a way to rebrand the Kurdish fighters and distance them from the PKK, so that Washington could train and equip them without appearing to support the party.
The Obama administration had moved from opposing Assad, to arming rebel fighters, to fighting ISIS and signing the Iran deal. At each juncture it narrowed its goals. By the time Trump was elected, the U.S. mission in eastern Syria, encapsulated in Operation Inherent Resolve, was to defeat ISIS on the ground and diplomatically oppose Assad through lip service in Geneva.
Trump vowed during his campaign to defeat ISIS, but he also wanted to show that there was a red line with respect to Assad’s crimes. He ordered airstrikes against the regime in April 2017 and April 2018 but was reluctant to do more. He ended support for the rebels in July 2017, and a year later Damascus took back rebel areas that had previously enjoyed some U.S. support. By this time, Russia and Iran were deeply involved in Syria, supporting Assad, and Turkey had launched an operation in northern Syria to prevent the U.S.-backed SDF from expanding its areas of control.
At each juncture, the U.S. found its choices narrowed in Syria, and America was isolated from having a say in the future of Syria as Russia, Turkey, and Iran excluded Washington from peace discussions they held at Astana. Nevertheless, by 2018, the U.S. and its SDF partners controlled a huge area in eastern Syria. National-security adviser John Bolton sought to push a strategy whereby America would hold on to eastern Syria until Iran left. The goal was to roll back Iranian influence and reduce Israel’s fears about Iran using Syria to attack. Bolton never got his way.
Trump’s decision in December 2018 to leave Syria led to the resignation of defense secretary James Mattis and anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk. Bolton was gone by September 2019. Jettisoning these key officials, the White House narrowed its role in Syria even more, no longer seeing a way to use it as leverage against Iran. Since Trump didn’t want to do nation-building in Syria, and wanted Europe or the Gulf states to foot the bill to keep ISIS detainees locked up, he saw the area as a sunk cost. As for Iran, he said the U.S. would use Iraq to “watch“ it.
All that was left of U.S. policy in Syria was the question of what to do about the U.S. partners, the mostly Kurdish forces that had been trained and that had done a phenomenal job defeating ISIS. The problem was that Turkey, sensing that Trump wanted to leave, kept threatening to launch an invasion of eastern Syria to attack the SDF. Turkey says it will resettle 2 million Syrians, mostly Arabs from elsewhere in Syria, in the Kurdish areas of eastern Syria.
U.S. policy in Syria has been one of shutting one door after another to close off U.S. influence, at the same time that Iran, Russia, and Turkey are opening those doors to partition Syria for their own interests. The risks of U.S. withdrawal are clear. Not only will ISIS make some inroads, but Washington will lose influence in Syria, and America’s image will be tarnished for appearing to abandon friends and being bullied into leaving. Iran is already calling the US an “irrelevant occupier” and saying that it’s ready to help take over eastern Syria.
Unfortunately, as the U.S. seeks to narrow its footprint and get out of the nation-building-humanitarian-intervention business that was a hallmark of the 1990s and early 2000s, Washington has chosen such a narrow goal that its allies are wondering whether there is a future for the U.S. in the Middle East. The U.S. had good intentions — the road to hell is paved with them — in Syria but badly mismanaged them. The result is that Iran, Russia, and Turkey got something and that all the U.S. got was a damaged reputation. It’s a far cry from 2011 when Syrian protesters all across the country, including Kurds and Arabs, looked to Washington for leadership and support.