America Never Was Serious About Syria
Time to leave
Pres. Donald Trump announced on Dec. 19, 2018 that U.S. military forces would withdraw from Syria. The decision was justified, according to the president, by the defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is down to only a couple thousand combatants at most and possesses only a small swath of territory.
“Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now,” Trump said later that evening. “We won, and that’s the way we want it.”
The announcement came as a surprise to most, however, and drew criticism from both parties, the media, the military, intelligence and foreign policy communities. It apparently contributed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ surprise resignation two days after Trump’s announcement.
As of this writing, approximately 2,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in Syria, although a military official once let fly the actual number may be closer to 4,000. Since Sept. 22, 2014, these troops have been helping the Syrian Democratic Forces group fight ISIS.
The main contribution of these American troops, a large percentage of which are special operations forces, was gathering intelligence and calling in air and artillery strikes to destroy ISIS targets. The mission largely has been a success.
As ISIS’s losses mounted, however, policymakers attempted to shift the mission to rollback of Iranian influence in the region. Such a mission is widely-favored within the defense and foreign policy establishment, despite the fact it would demand an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces in Syria, incur the risk of clashing with conflict participants aligned with the Syria-Iran-Russia coalition and, as even one proponent of such a strategy concedes, is illegal.
Critics believe a withdrawal would not only place Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in firm control of the country but would also hand Iran and Russia major strategic victories.
Further complicating matters are recent developments involving Turkey. Ankara views the Kurds, who comprise the lion’s share of the SDF, as a threat to national security, given their association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Recently, the United States had worked feverishly to hold off Turkey from going on the offensive against the Kurds, but Ankara’s patience appears to be wearing dangerously thin. Some analysts believe the risk of a United States-Turkey clash is a driving factor behind the withdrawal announcement.
The 2,000 U.S. troops can only be described as “roadblocks” standing between Assad’s complete control of the country, greater Iranian and Russian influence and a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces. They are outgunned and outnumbered, with the likelihood of a clash against Syria-Iran-Russia-aligned militants, if not the countries themselves, only growing by the day.
Furthermore, Al Assad controls more than two-thirds of the country and the Syria-Iran-Russia coalition has the initiative. There is no reason to believe, short of significant American escalation, Al Assad will cease pursuit of the remaining territories, nor Iran and Russia will depart Syria.
A clash between the United States and Turkey, a NATO member, would also result in a major international crisis, especially since the U.S.-coalition use of Turkish air bases is critical to broader Middle East policy.
Critics of Trump’s announcement to withdraw cite the fact ISIS is not fully defeated and could easily resurrect itself if given the opportunity. While this may be correct, it flies in the face of the fact ISIS’s downfall has not prevented it from committing acts of terrorism in the region.
The Dec. 11, 2018 shooting at a Christmas market in France proved the group’s physical viability is independent from the perpetuation of attacks overseas in its name. In Iraq, ISIS has gone underground and has become an insurgency.
What the U.S. operation has done is to destroy ISIS as a Hezbollah-type, politically-viable fighting force capable of seizing and holding territory. The threat posed by ISIS was more of the conventional variety. Its transformation into an insurgency and terror-oriented group poses a threat of a different nature, requiring redress via something other than blunt force.
At top — a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon descends away from a KC-135 Stratotanker after receiving fuel to continue its mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq on Aug. 11, 2018. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Burt Traynor. Above — Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al Assad meet in Moscow in 2015. Kremlin photo
Once ISIS is defeated in its present form, there is little left for the U.S. to do in Syria, other than to leave and focus attention elsewhere. “These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the [coalition] or its campaign,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders remarked. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
Withdrawing ground troops also means an end to the air war. Effective employment of precision air power, the kind demonstrated during OIR, requires hyper-accurate, real-time intelligence and eyes on the target, something only ground forces can provide. It is not likely the Kurds nor the remainder of the SDF have achieved the ability to call in airstrikes on their own.
There is also the question of what happens if a U.S. or coalition aircraft gets shot down over Syria, should an air campaign continue. Thus far, OIR aircraft have not faced a significant air threat, though this would likely change in the event of an American withdrawal.
In the absence of friendly forces on the ground, search-and-rescue would have to come from bases in neighboring countries, namely Iraq, Jordan or Turkey. These search-and-rescue forces would need to fly through now-hostile airspace and require support from combat aircraft tasked with suppressing enemy defenses or attacking hostile forces trying to capture downed aircrew.
The risk to the men and women flying over Syria in the event of withdrawal and the difficulties in rescuing them comprise the bottom rung of a brand-new escalatory ladder, one that would loom large in any decision to cease the air war.
It is, however, entirely probable the U.S.-led coalition could continue operations in Syria using drones and firing artillery from western Iraq, mitigating the risk of casualties. But drones are still vulnerable to downing and launching artillery from Iraq also presents risk of escalation, should Syrian forces capture remaining territory in the east.
These artillery batteries could become targets if Damascus, with consensus from Moscow and Tehran, deem them a threat.
Though Syria has long since been the focus of America’s Operation Inherent Resolve, that wasn’t always the case. America’s war against ISIS began June 15, 2014, when Pres. Barack Obama ordered a return of U.S. forces to Iraq at Baghdad’s request.
After a summer of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations and threat-assessment, Obama decided a military intervention was necessary. Air strikes began on Aug. 8, 2014. By the end of December 2017, Iraqi forces with U.S. and coalition assistance had defeated ISIS and regained all the territory Baghdad lost to the group.
Obama’s decision to intervene came just three years after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011. The withdrawal was seen by many, including Trump himself, as premature and a contributing factor in ISIS’s rise.
U.S. forces returned to Iraq at Baghdad’s behest. By comparison, the Obama administration never consulted Damascus, therefore never receiving permission to execute military operations in Syria. Going on the offensive against ISIS in Syria was militarily necessary, since the militant group’s nexus was located there, not in Iraq.
However, it was a political and strategic risk, albeit a calculated one, since the United States was injecting itself in a raging civil war. Fortunately, the Al Assad regime itself was reeling at the time, forced into a defensive crouch in the face of fierce opposition, and the Russians were still months away from intervening.
Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. Al Assad now controls two-thirds of Syria and both Russia and Iran have doubled down on their presence in the country, with the former declaring a permanent presence. Any American president, present or future, contemplating a return to Syria would have to keep these considerations in mind, considerations that did not exist in 2014.
A U.S. withdrawal from Syria will likely have little to no impact on operations in Iraq. Since U.S. forces are there at the Iraqi government’s request, the U.S.-led coalition likely will continue to assist in propping up the still-unstable government. Unlike Syria, America “broke” Iraq and, thereby, owns the consequences of its invasion. It also makes sense to maintain a military presence in Iraq should the Trump administration continue to pursue its policy of containing Iran.
With evidence showing Tehran’s influence on its Arab neighbor may be waning, continuing to support the Iraqi government, at least in the near term, may be a better option than pursuing a half-hearted strategy in Syria, which Iran appears to possess a stranglehold on.
Neither strategy is without risk. But unless the United States is willing to intensify or double-down on its efforts, there is more risk and less reward in remaining in Syria. The situation resembles a Mexican stand-off, except there are more guns pointed at the United States than at anyone else.