Once, the Syrian president seemed doomed by a grinding civil war and international isolation. Then came help from the Russian military in 2015. Now, nearly eight years after the conflict started, Assad will almost certainly remain in power in his tattered country.
The United States has made no secret of its distaste for the dictator, who killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of his own people, sometimes with banned chemical weapons. When evidence emerged that Assad’s forces had used sarin nerve agent on civilians in a rebel-held town, President Trump authorized an airstrike that inflicted limited damage on Assad’s air force. It wasn’t much, but it showed willingness to push back against the regime’s worst abuses.
Now the White House has signaled that Syria no longer remains a military priority. To be fair, the U.S. forces in Syria were far from the battles between Assad’s military and rebel factions, including some that were once backed by Washington. The U.S. intervention was mostly about pushing back the Islamic State from strongholds including the militant group’s self-declared capital, Raqqa. Still, the end of a U.S. military presence should give further confidence to Assad and his key allies — Russia and Iran — to team up with Syrian troops to crush the remnants of the rebels and opposition, handing Assad more complete control of Syria.
Just months ago, the Trump administration said it was keeping U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely to act as a bulwark against Iran. The United States has de facto control of about a third of the country and has worked to disrupt Iranian activities.
Without the United States, Iran and its ally Russia will be the most powerful foreign forces in Syria. And because they are allied with Assad, they are likely to have free rein. In the past, Iran has used Syria as a pathway to transport troops and weapons to allies around the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Russia has positioned itself as one of Assad’s major allies. Its military has been active in Syria since 2015. Without the U.S. troop presence, Moscow will be able to expand its role in Syria and its sphere of influence across the Middle East.
In his tweet about the withdrawal, Trump bragged that the Islamic State has been defeated.
Many experts say the opposite is true. There are about 15,000 Islamic State militants in Syria, according to best estimates. In recent months, the group has been regaining a foothold in the country. Violent attacks have increased. (As Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute pointed out, the Islamic State — just 10 minutes before Trump’s tweet — claimed responsibility for an attack on Raqqa.)
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
As my colleague Liz Sly wrote, there are “signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup, and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency.” The only thing slowing that result, she wrote, is the presence of the United States. U.S. troops “have to stay,” said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called. “If they leave and there isn’t a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic,” he told Sly.
The U.S. withdrawal could lead to a rejuvenated and emboldened Islamic State, a terrorist threat in Syria and beyond.
For months, Turkey has threatened to invade the Kurdish-controlled portion of Syria. Although the Turks have launched a handful of directed offensives, they have so far refrained from doing too much damage.
When U.S. troops leave, that will almost certainly change. One of the major roles of U.S. troops in Syria has been to protect the country’s Kurds. They now occupy about a third of Syrian territory, which they run as if it were a semiautonomous region. A U.S. exit will leave the ethnic minority vulnerable to attack from Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has all but promised just that. Days ago, Ankara threatened to launch a military offensive against Syria’s Kurds. For decades, Turkish forces have battled Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast. Erdogan and others worry that any strengthening of Kurdish power in the region, including Syria, could pose further threats to Turkey. Erdogan has become increasingly frustrated that the Kurds have managed to take control of such a large swath of Syria, including portions on the Turkish border.
Israel’s main mission in Syria isn’t really about Syria at all: It has been working to weaken Iran. Israeli forces have launched some airstrikes. Without the United States, Israel has few allies left inside Syria.