President Joe Biden’s national-security staff is in the midst of a number of internal foreign-policy reviews on a range of issues, from the U.S. force posture in Afghanistan to the multifaceted challenges posed by China.
U.S. policy in Syria, however, appears to be in a largely immovable state. If the country weren’t playing host to approximately 900 U.S. troops, such lethargy wouldn’t be much of an issue. But the U.S. military is still very much in the middle of Syria’s ten-year civil war, and the reasons supplied for prolonged troop presence there — nearly two years after the Islamic State lost the last patch of its territorial caliphate — are tired and unconvincing.
The president doesn’t need months of study before devising a viable Syria policy. The most effective course of action for the U.S. is in plain sight and has been for a while: Get out militarily and hand the problem over to regional stakeholders who have more of a legitimate interest in solving it.
The U.S. intervened in Syria for one reason and one reason only: to stop ISIS from expanding before eliminating it. The objective was achieved only after more than four years of bombing and considerable sacrifice from Kurdish forces on the ground. Yet the mission was doubtless aided by the fact that no contingent in Syria had an interest in seeing ISIS proliferate. Iran, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, pro-Syrian government militias, the Kurds, Turkey, Russia, and Arab tribal forces in Syria’s eastern provinces may have viciously disagreed about how Syria should be governed, but they all recognized ISIS as a significant threat to their own power. For the Kurds in particular, ISIS was an existential threat to their own community.
Yet years after ISIS’s caliphate collapsed like a wobbly house of cards, U.S. forces continue to operate on Syrian soil with an ill-defined mission. Our troops continue to go out on patrols that have no inherent value other than establishing a symbolic presence in an area known for sometimes violent clashes between Turks, Russians, Kurds, and Shia militias. On some occasions, the U.S. conducts airstrikes on targets that have nothing to do with ISIS, with last night’s self-defense strike against Shia militia targets on the Iraq–Syria border a prime example. On others, U.S. soldiers have gotten into pointless, dangerous stand-offs with Russian military convoys. We must seriously ask ourselves: For what purpose are we doing this, other than to maintain what former U.S. Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey regards as a “stalemate”?
Of course, many analysts in Washington counsel against a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria. They claim that a U.S. troop presence in Syria is the glue holding the anti-ISIS effort together. Yet these analyses frequently ignore the other stakeholders in Syria, all of whom have an interest in managing the ISIS problem. Indeed, because these actors live in close quarters with the approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters who remain in Iraq and Syria, their motivations for continuing the fight are stronger and more compelling.
We are seeing this motivation play out in real time. According to a February 8 Defense Department, Russia and Syrian government forces have escalated military operations against ISIS remnants. The Russians engaged in intense strikes against ISIS positions in the Syrian desert this week. Turkish forces are stepping up raids against ISIS and adopting stricter controls along the Syrian–Turkish border in part to limit the flow of ISIS fighters. In the same report, the Defense Intelligence Agency told the inspector general that Iran “remains committed to countering ISIS by providing lethal aid and advisory support to its partners and proxies in both Iraq and Syria.” It is highly unlikely that all of these operations would cease if President Biden ordered a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria. In fact, one can make the case that the less U.S. military personnel are involved, the more incentive other anti-ISIS actors have to maintain pressure on the organization.
The Biden administration may very well look at all of this and still conclude that pulling out would hurt Syria’s prospects of getting some state of normality. But let’s face it: It’s not like the U.N.-facilitated peace process is going anywhere. The Assad regime is no more interested in compromising its power today than it was in 2012, when tens of thousands of Syrian troops were deserting Assad’s army and opposition mortars could be heard in the center of Damascus. If Assad wasn’t willing to entertain his own resignation then, he’s not going to entertain it now.
While U.S. officials continue to call for a diplomatic resolution to the civil war, Syria is going to be a mess for at least another generation. Assad will remain at the helm, albeit far more dependent on Russian and Iranian support for his survival. This is the unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless.
To think the U.S. is the key to building a modern Syrian state from scratch is to engage in poor judgment and wishful thinking. The U.S. objective of annihilating ISIS’s territorial caliphate is over. The U.S. military has done its job.
Now it is time to leave.