As the world reacts to the U.S. election results, there is a chorus of celebration in places such as Europe about the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency. In the Middle East, however, there is more apprehension. This is not necessarily because countries have had bad experiences with Biden, but because many states in the region are concerned about potentially abrupt changes in U.S. foreign policy to come. One place Washington needs to get it right is in Syria, where our partners on the ground helped defeat ISIS and want to work closely with whoever is in charge in D.C.
For ten years, Syria has suffered a brutal civil war, ripped apart by the Russian-backed Syrian regime’s suppression of dissidents, the rise and fall of a genocidal ISIS, and military operations by Turkey that threatened U.S. Kurdish partners. The U.S. can’t put a lid on the Pandora’s box of Syria; it has tried supporting Syrian rebels in the past, including by conducting airstrikes on the Assad regime. Throughout the last decade, the U.S. has cycled through two administrations and a series of policy choices that often ended badly. However, we can and should salvage what has worked thus far.
One place the U.S. has been successful is in eastern Syria. Led by U.S. Special Forces and Central Command, America found and worked with allies on the ground to defeat ISIS in 2019. In the wake of that defeat, the Trump administration sought to keep its promise to bring U.S. troops home. Today, our friends in Syria wonder if the U.S. is fully withdrawing from the region. President Donald Trump has characterized these wars as fighting in “faraway places” that Americans have never heard of. That may be so, but America’s role in the world from the time of Jefferson and Adams has involved fighting in faraway places to protect U.S. interests and standing with friends against enemies.
The U.S. needs a Syria policy. Furthermore, it ought to establish continuity between the current and incoming administrations. One problem the Trump administration has suffered from is its flip-flops on Syria — saying it will defeat ISIS, then pledging to withdraw in 2018, then staying, then committing to leave again, then saying it will protect oil. This has enabled and emboldened U.S. enemies such as Iran — along with Russia and Turkey — to try to undermine our role in the world.
America has made impressive progress in Syria. It helped secure a swath of eastern Syria, worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces to crush ISIS, and did so all with relatively little manpower and investment. This is not an “endless war” but a successful example of the U.S. using a small footprint to achieve a massive amount of influence.
Indeed, it is imperative that the U.S. stay in Syria and continue working with its Kurdish, Arab, and Christian partners on the ground. Leaving now, especially as Iran and Russia are champing at the bit to humiliate the U.S., would be to give away a huge strategic piece of real estate unnecessarily. Remaining, however, requires having an understanding of why we are there. Cogent U.S. policy must reflect that. The next administration should work with the current one to carve out such policy.
Together, I trust, they would find that we are in eastern Syria to enable our partners on the ground to bring stability so that ISIS never rises again. Syria is the western flank of Iraq, and ISIS uses the border region of both countries to avoid Iraqi security forces. U.S. surveillance, such as drones, helps reduce the ISIS threat and supports partners on both sides of the border. The U.S. presence also helps prevent Iran from turning the Iraq–Syria border into a highway for weapons trafficking to Hezbollah in Lebanon (weapons that would eventually be used to threaten Israel). Lastly, the U.S. role in Syria allows Christian and other minority communities, which suffered persecution under ISIS, to recover.
Turkey has in the past threatened to invade eastern Syria, accusing U.S. partners there of being militants. Washington needs to make it clear that Ankara’s threats are not helpful, nor in line with its being a NATO ally. The U.S. has succeeded in making eastern Syria more stable than the areas Turkey already controls in northern Syria. That is proof enough that Washington’s role is a positive one and that the area America’s partners control is the most peaceful in the country. While a new administration in Washington may want to change policies from the Trump era, it’s important to send a message that threats to America’s role in Syria will not be tolerated and that we will stand by our partners who joined — and sacrificed their lives — in the fight against ISIS.