Contentious Partnership: The U.S. Military Withdrawal from Syria

Written by: Ariana King

On December 19th, 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw 2,000 troops from Syria within 30 days, claiming that the Islamic State (IS), an Islamist extremist group, had been defeated and that U.S. troop presence was no longer necessary.  This decision was met with significant domestic and international criticism. National security advisors warned that pulling out of Syria would allow Iran and Russia ― key allies of the Syrian government― to gain more influence in the region and leave Kurdish allies abandoned, making local militias unlikely to trust the United States in future Middle Eastern conflicts. President Trump’s decision was also heavily criticized by French President Emmanuel Macron, who urged the White House to recognize and honor the hard work of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which he argued played a key role in weakening the IS to its current state after the terrorist group took over a vast portion of Syria four years ago. Along with these criticisms is the debate over whether the IS, in fact, has been defeated. 

According to a recent U.S. report, the IS has clearly not been defeated. Up to 14,000 IS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq, and many fear that the IS will begin to use guerrilla tactics to continue their fight and will not accept defeat. Unfortunately, some of these fears have already been realized. Numerous IS insurgents have carried out small-scale bombings, killings, and kidnappings while waiting to regroup.  

In light of all this international criticism, the Trump administration has modified the initial 30-day withdrawal policy through a variety of means. First and foremost, the administration recognized that the IS had not been defeated, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirming the U.S.’ commitment to defeating the IS, despite President Trump’s order for troop withdrawal and victory declaration on Twitter. As of January 11th, 2019, the U.S. has begun the withdrawal process but limited it to equipment only. As of now, there is no longer a clear timeline of when U.S. troops will be coming home. In regards to fears of increased Russian and Iranian influence, Pompeo has vowed to “expel every last Iranian boot from Syria” and declared that the U.S. will not provide aid in areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad until Iran leaves the country.

Most worrisome, however, is the safety and protection of the Kurdish YPG militia―the group that makes up the majority of the SDF.  While just the U.S. troop withdrawal alone has left them vulnerable, the YPG not only face the threat of an IS resurgence with the subsequent power vacuum the U.S. leaves behind, but threats from the Turkish government as well―who sees the Kurdish YPG as a terrorist group connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group that has long fought for independence from Turkey. In order to protect their allies, national security leaders such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have vowed to protect the Syrian Kurds from Turkish threats. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated that he makes no distinction between the YPG and the Turkish Kurd extremist group and that he refuses to compromise. Even after President Trump threatened Turkey with extreme economic sanctions and demanded that Turkey create a “safe zone” for the Kurds, President Erdogan explicitly excluded the YPG from this “safe zone.” 

In response to this threat, the YPG has turned to Syria’s ally, Russia. Their goal is to strike a deal that allows the Syrian government to take power in the vacuum left by the U.S.’ withdrawal, a move they believe will decrease the chances of a Turkish military attack. In addition to potential talks with both Russia and Syria, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (a U.S. ally) Ilham Ahmed urged a deal in which the U.S. would withdraw troops only after protecting the Kurds’ position in the northern areas of Syria from IS.  While President Trump had ordered Turkey to create a “safe zone”, the policy is not supported by Ahmed who denounced the idea of a “safe zone” because it would mean “turning[the safe zones] into Turkish colonies controlled by terrorist groups [Syrian opposition groups that Turkey supports].” As the rivalry between Turkey and Syria won’t disappear any time soon, Ahmed insists on military protection, if not from the U.S., then from U.N. sanctioned forces along the two nation’s borders.  

At this point, while American and Turkish action remains uncertain, the future does not look bright for the Syrian Kurdish fighters.  Despite the U.S.’ promise of protection, a promise is only empty words unless action is taken to back it up, and, so far, there has not been any concrete proof that Turkey will not attack.  By withdrawing from Syria under the false impression that the collapse of IS’ caliphate signifies its death, the U.S. has betrayed its strongest allies.  The betrayal is felt so strongly that the Syrian Kurdish fighters are willing to ally themselves with U.S. enemies Syria and Russia just to stop an attack from a greater Turkish threat.  Their decision clearly demonstrates the strong lack of U.S. commitment to its allies and not only hurts U.S. relations with local Syrian allies but also other future local partnerships.  As shown by the new Kurdish strategy, alliances are only stable if the two sides are willing to protect one another; if one side doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, then it’s time to sever ties.