A glimmer of hope has shown itself in the administration’s foreign policy. In December, President Trump announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing its troops from Syria. The Pentagon has since affirmed that directive by preparing its deployments for extraction as soon as it is feasible to do so. But before the ink could dry, an unlikely alliance of Republican war hawks and anti-Trump Democrats have emerged to criticize the cessation of endless war. This is Washington D.C. at its worst. A political mood born in the War on Terror, where counterterrorism is simplified down to a game of whack-a-mole that has no decisive conclusion to it.
But here’s the reality: remaining in Syria is a no-win situation for the U.S. That’s not a proclamation of a defeatist. That’s just a realistic observation on how the strategy has developed since 2011. It has stretched across two presidencies and four secretaries of state. It has flirted with an extensive roster of contradictory objectives and the tools to achieve them. Toppling the Syrian regime turned into toppling the ISIS regime. Arming the Syrian rebels turned into arming the Kurdish militants. Time and time again, a series of indecisive half-measures manage to complicate the environment without achieving any objectives in completion.
When the game is unwinnable but you have lives and resources at stake, it’s time to stop playing. If Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria carries forward, it will be the right decision both ethically and strategically.
Obama’s initial foray into Syria started on shaky ethical grounds and it has only grown worse. The wisdom of replacing Bashar al-Assad’s secular dictatorship with a horde of competing rebel warlords appears just as irresponsible today as it did when I wrote on this topic in April 2018. The emergence of ISIS in 2014 exposed the blunder of U.S. efforts to destabilize other governments. Had we not undermined the Syrian regime, it could have worked in our favor against ISIS. Full cooperation? No. But at the very least, ISIS wouldn’t have an anarchic Syrian desert to cower in after the Iraqis reclaimed Mosul.
Any justification that the U.S. presence in Syria may have earned while fighting ISIS has now evaporated. ISIS has lost 98 percent of its territory and the viability of a terrorist caliphate has been discredited. Its surviving members are still numerous enough to remain a threat, but stamping them out must be the work of Syrians and Iraqis, not Americans. The entire ideology of ISIS rests on the assumption that secular governments cannot provide for the general welfare of people. Combating that ideology requires establishing credibility in the governments of Iraq and Syria. Credibility to govern, protect, and foster prosperity and well-being. For as long as the U.S. maintains a presence there, that credibility will never be truly achieved. Iraq will continue to be viewed as a weak puppet state and Syria will be continuously assailed by Islamists bearing U.S. weapons.
The strategy of the withdrawal lines up in our favor as well. The Syrian government controls about two-thirds of the country at time of writing, and every square mile they earn at the expense of non-governmental armies is another step towards a positive resolution.
Critics of the withdrawal claim that we are betraying the Kurds. After all, we did arm them up and play them against ISIS like a game of chess. However, the feeling of betrayal is unavoidable since the Kurds were never on the same page with us about the relationship. They believed that U.S. sponsorship would pave the way for Kurdish statehood- something they’ve longed for ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But the U.S. only viewed the Kurds as a tool against ISIS. In fact, any move to develop Kurdish statehood would come at the expense of U.S.-Turkey relations. It could even warrant a Turkish invasion, given how hostile that country is towards armed Kurds on its border. If the U.S. remains in Syria, then the Kurds will feel emboldened to poke at Turkish border security, believing that U.S. troops will stave off any Turkish response. That’s not a dilemma we want to put ourselves in.
In actuality, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria is the best way to provide Kurds with a secure situation. That’s quite the opposite of a betrayal. The Syrian government would be eager to reclaim its northeastern territory, which is where the U.S. is currently operating. Russia can give them a nudge if they’re slow to move on that. Allowing Syria to station its pre-war borders will work in the interests of all. The Kurds already have a tacit alliance with the Syrian government, as demonstrated when they cooperated against the rebels during the Siege of Aleppo. Kurdish security is well served if the Syrians help build a buffer against Turkey. Likewise, the Turks will prefer a border with Syria over a border with a newly-forged Kurdistan.
Americans should sigh in relief every time these engagements are ceased. If we are to trade blood and treasure for an objective, it needs to be defined and attainable. No such objective exists when it comes to remaining in Syria.