Robert S. Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University, was U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014.
President Trump’s Dec. 23 tweet promising a “slow and highly coordinated” withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria may ease the gnashing of teeth among officials and analysts in Washington, but it won’t end the criticism of his decision. That is precisely why the president should view the hullabaloo that erupted after he announced the Syrian pullout as an opportunity to take a number of steps to make the most of his essentially correct, but widely unpopular, move.
Many observers have asserted that the withdrawal gives victory in Syria to Russia, Iran and the Syrian government. That’s absurd. Bashar al-Assad’s regime already controls about two-thirds of Syria, including all of the major cities. The portion of Syria that U.S. forces control alongside their Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies is mostly either desert or drought-prone plains. The oil fields there produce high-sulfur, low-value crude, and production has long been diminishing. Oil revenue made up only about 5 percent of Syrian gross domestic product before the 2011 uprising, according to the International Monetary Fund. In sum, holding northeastern Syria would not have enabled Washington to leverage any important concessions from Damascus, Tehran or Moscow.
Stability, not a deeply embattled Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone, is the vital long-term U.S. interest in northeastern Syria. Turkey can accept with conditions the return of Syrian government forces into the area, as Russia and Iran want. Ankara dislikes the Assad government, but it dislikes more the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish region along its border.
The United States’ erstwhile friends, the Syrian Kurds, have always allowed Damascus to keep its security offices open in northeastern Syria; the Kurds never closed that channel of communication. If anything, the Syrian Kurds prefer the deployment of Syrian government forces along the Turkish border to deter Ankara. Agile Russian diplomacy should be able to secure the deal for an orderly, perhaps gradual, deployment of those Syrian government forces into the region formerly controlled by the United States.
Nor will the U.S. withdrawal be a game changer for Israeli security. Already, Yaakov Amidror, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, noted that the U.S. troops’ contribution against the Iranian forces in Syria was “marginal to zero.” If Iran tries to build a land bridge from Tehran to its allies in Lebanon, the Israeli Air Force is more than capable of interdicting those convoys.
Critics also warn that the U.S. withdrawal could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State. This is possible, although in western Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian government and its allies, there is little visible Islamic State activity. In any case, U.S. troops can’t destroy the Islamic State ideology, and restraining future recruitment by the extremist group requires more than some infrastructure rehabilitation projects. Syrians had electricity and water when they rose up against Assad in 2011; it is Syria’s underlying societal problems that spawned the unrest and spurred Islamist extremist recruitment. Only Syrians, not U.S. troops and stabilization teams, can reverse that. We would do well to be humbler about our abilities, especially in the face of sustained, widespread regional hostility.
Going forward, the Trump administration should use the next few weeks to support SDF fighters’ efforts to capture remaining villages in eastern Syria still held by the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the administration needs to deliver three messages to Moscow.
First, it should offer Russia cooperation in smoothing the way for a deal between the SDF and Damascus that would allow Syrian troops to return to eastern Syria in a manner that meets Turkish security concerns and gives no new space to the Islamic State. Second, Washington could offer to share with the Russians actionable intelligence about the Islamic State in eastern Syria and arrange an effective hotline in case the United States decides that a strike force stationed in the region should hit Islamic State targets inside Syria. Third, it should inform the Kremlin that the United States will support Israeli moves to counter Iranian actions in Syria that threaten Israel’s security.
Finally, the president needs to consider how his own foreign policy team got so far out ahead of him on Syria. He needs a National Security Council staff that can more clearly relay his cautions and concerns about U.S. foreign policy to the people in charge of executing it. That staff needs to make clear to officials in the departments that, while he hears various departments’ views, those departments must act on his guidance. Ensuring implementation is the NSC’s job. The president would benefit politically and, more importantly, U.S. national security would benefit from a more effective foreign policy team.