President Trump’s unexpected pledge last week to pull U.S. troops out of Syria “very soon” has occasioned predictable wailing in predictable places.
The president also faced unsurprising pushback from his national security team, forcing him to clarify this week that the 2,000 troops there now will stay only until the mission to defeat ISIS, which is “coming to a rapid end,” is finished. Of course his military advisors and many of his aides disagree.
A Pentagon spokesman has warned that ISIS is looking for “any opportunity to regain momentum.” Anonymous military officers speak of fumbling the ball “on the two yard line.” Officials tell reporters that while the group is “almost completely defeated,” a string of renewed ISIS attacks could signal a resurgence.
Regardless of the outcome in Washington, Trump’s instincts on Syria deserve discussion.
Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, the operation in Syria has cost us very little blood and treasure, at least so far. Special operations forces (SOF) and “other government agencies” ably partnered with our largely Kurdish proxies to break the back of ISIS’s nascent state. The group’s conventional military power has been destroyed. Howev er menacing officials make it sound, it’s been estimated that the Islamic State has fewer than 1,000 fighters left on the battlefield. Mosul, its largest city, was retaken by Iraqi security forces, while its de facto capital Raqqa was conquered by the Kurds. Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor are back in government hands. Areas of ISIS control are tough to even find on a map of the Syrian conflict.
For all these successes, however, we have been walking a knife’s edge in Syria ever since openly intervening there in 2014. Deconfliction with Russia has not been flawless: Turkey shot down a Russian plane in 2015 and U.S. firepower reportedly killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries earlier this year. That knife’s edge has only gotten sharper over the past two months, as Turkish troops invaded the Afrin region of northern Syria. Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” exposed the elephant in the room: America’s only successful proxy, the Syrian Kurds, are linked to Turkey’s PKK, which Turkey, the European Union, and the U.S. have declared a terrorist group. Our NATO ally is now openly at war with our Kurdish partner, as American advisors do their best to stay off the frontline. In 2008, Vice President-Elect Joe Biden bluntly told Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai: “Pakistan is 50 times more important for the United States than Afghanistan.” The same obvious wisdom applies in spades to Turkey and Syria respectively.
What of the Kurds? If recent reports are to be believed, American Special Forces are incensed they are being told to abandon a valiant, reliable battlefield ally. Squeezed between a revanchist Turkey and a stabilized Syrian state, Syria’s Kurds are not likely to keep their independent project of Rojava. The United States declined to intervene to protect Iraq’s Kurds last year, when Iraqi forces quickly seized the Kurdish “Jerusalem,” oil-rich Kirkuk, after an abortive independence referendum. To pretend we have a greater will or ability to protect Syria’s Kurds is folly.
The Kurds should ask Vietnam’s Montagnards how they fared as an American proxy, or question the Palestinians about what they’ve gained from an American mediator. Loathe though we may be to admit it, America has been a fickle friend for the majority of small nations and peoples that have looked to her as a protector. Even many of our Afghan interpreters who served in American uniforms and cashed American paychecks have been abandoned to their enemies. Like a serial philanderer we can pretend that this time will be different, but the reality is that America seldom has the patience or stomach for sustained non-existential military intervention outside our hemisphere, particularly when casualties mount. The victims of pretending otherwise are seldom Americans; they are Vietnamese, Somalis, Iraqi Marsh Arabs, and many others. The current state of political polarization in Washington and the primacy of the 24-hour news cycle have only hardened this long-standing reality.
Left to their own devices, Syria’s Kurds can probably work out a modus vivendi with Assad’s government, which has other battles to fight and foreign backers of its own who would like to draw down their commitments. Battles between the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and Assad’s Syrian Arab Army have been few. Turkey has tolerated a Kurdish autonomous region on its border with Iraq—but it will not do so with Kurds who remain affiliated with the PKK.
Regardless of Rojava’s fate, ISIS may well regenerate. It already has the local ties and financial network to thrive as an insurgency in western Iraq. That, however, is a governance and security problem for Iraqis and Syrians, not Americans. The United States maintains an unparalleled ability to project military power and destroy targets around the world, both with standoff firepower and by putting troops into battle via air and sea. Should ISIS or another Salafist successor build any real base of power again in the Levant we can rapidly deploy combat power to destroy it. But staying there any longer remains a fool’s errand.
Gil Barndollar served as a Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016. His writing has appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, the Journal of Military Operations, and the Michigan War Studies Review.