WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump announced this week that the U.S. would be pulling 2,000 troops out of Syria, where a years long civil war has turned the levant into a kaleidoscope of factions (and their allies) competing for power. Trump followed that announcement with another; 7,000 U.S. troops would also be coming home from Afghanistan, where we’ve been fighting the Taliban an other Islamists for more than a decade.
Subsequently, the President’s Secretary of Defense, the legendary General James Mattis, announced his retirement. Apparently the Pentagon was not informed beforehand of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, or Afghanistan. Mattis is our generations General Patton, or McArthur – he is a military leader of the highest order, with a reputation that precedes him on the battlefield.
Not informing the military leaders of such drastic changes in policy is a huge mistake, and Mattis was right to take issue with it. However, that issue is different than what the actual implications are for the United States’ nation security and interests with regard to the Middle East, Syria in particular.
So what does this all mean? Well, many Republicans are lashing out in response to the decision, proclaiming that Trump is handing control of the Middle East to the Islamic Republic of Iran and even setting the stage for the next 9/11 by not having a presence in this chaotic fight among authoritarians and Islamists.
Others are happy to have the troops home, feeling that the U.S. should not be the ‘world’s police man,’ and that it’s about time we stopped wasting blood and treasure in a perpetually dynamic and warring Middle East.
There are certainly a lot of implications to this move, but we’d do well to understand just what the dynamics are in Syria, what our troops’ presence affected, and what leaving may imply. Those answers are not as cut and dry as neocons, nor isolationists, assume.
For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio’s contention that withdrawing from Syria hands it over to the Iranians ignores the fact that the Iranians were essentially operating with impunity even with our forces there, necessitating many (and future) strikes by Israel on Iranian threats.
For this we turn to expert analysis from John McCreary of NightWatch. McCreary used to serve as a top military intelligence adviser, being the first to develop ‘Night Watch’ national security briefings for our nations leaders. His analysis is objective, informative, and indispensable when it comes to judging the merit or folly rhetoric such as that surrounding this most recent decision. We present his take on the Syria decision below (emphasis added), and you can sign up for the NightWatch report here.
US soldiers are leaving Syria. The US Presidency disclosed that the President has declared victory over the Islamic State in Syria. Thus, he has ordered US soldiers to depart Syria.
NightWatch Comment: This decision has generated much criticism. There is no explanation for the timing, but President Erdogan had a phone conversation with the US President last Friday, 14 December, and announced this week that the US President was positive about Turkey’s plan to attack the Kurds in eastern Syria.
Amid all the negative backlash, some facts and relationships have been ignored. The essay is neither for or against the policy. It explains aspects of the situation that seldom receive attention.
The Turks, the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrians all have called for the departure of US soldiers. The Syrians repeatedly denounced the US and Turkish presence as lawless. Their departure would cure this complaint and leave only Turkey in violation of international law.
The US military forces had a specific, narrow mission which originally was to capture Raqqa. They accomplished that; anything beyond that was mission creep.
Somehow capturing Raqqa expanded into ensuring the Islamic State was permanently defeated, an endless task.
Then the mission morphed into protecting the Kurds. That expanded into blocking the Iranians. Then came ensuring a government without Syrian President Assad; then staying until there was a political settlement and finally seeking a fundamental regime change but Assad can stay.
Assuming the US decision stands, the withdrawal order constitutes the clearest mission restatement since the order to liberate Raqqa.
The US -backed proxies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are dominant in a third of the country. It contains Syria’s oil fields. No government in Damascus would tolerate that condition. Assad has never wavered in his determination to restore Syrian sovereignty. At some point, a confrontation was inevitable.
The US has never had a strong rationale for involvement in Syria. The images of then Secretary of State Kerry fawning over Assad during an earlier administration were as unnatural as the US supporting soldiers and Marines in a completely land-locked enclave that is mostly desert.
The wonder is not that they are withdrawing, but how did the US manage to keep them there for so long with heavy artillery. No other country on earth could do that and few would see wisdom in doing it.
The US is not ceding Syria to anyone. It never had anything to cede. Despite dominating a third of Syria, the US has had no influence in Syria beyond the fight against the Islamic State. It clandestinely supported the anti-Assad movements which resulted in a colossal embarrassment. Plus they lost the civil war.
The other parties live in the region, except the Russians. The Russians have had ties to Syria since 1946. They have had a naval facility at Tartus since 1971 by invitation. The Russians, Iranians and Turks filled all available political space long before the first US soldier arrived.
The US could not protect the Kurds. The US backing of the Kurds could not prevent their loss of Afrin Canton to the Turks in two major operations. None of the major regional actors support the Kurds. Russia tried and failed to arrange for the Kurds to attend UN-backed or Russian-backed political meetings.
Some US contingents were vulnerable to attack. In October, Iranian ballistic missiles aimed at Islamic State targets in eastern Syria came within three miles of a US military position. On days when weather grounded US air support, some US contingents were attacked viciously by Islamic State fighters.
Islamic State fighters remain in Syria and continue to relocate and reconstitute in many countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indian Kashmir. China is concerned about returning Uighur fighters. The US military success in Syria forced non-Syrian fighters to return to their homes, generating an Islamic State diaspora.
The many Israeli air attacks against Iranians in Syria are a testament that the US military presence posed no significant obstacle to expansion of Iranian activities in Syria.
After the US forces depart, the natural order will return. The Russians have been laying the foundation for it for the past three years. In defeating the Islamic State, the US has been the key enabler of a return to normal order in Syria.
The Russians were a Syrian ally for 60 years. Their position has been strengthened because they did not have to fight the Islamic State. They added an airbase and signed a 99 years lease for the naval base. They used the civil war to field test their most modern weapons and all their field commanders.
Most of that would not have been possible without the US effort that defeated the Islamic State. The Russians would have been required to commit far more forces than they did.
The Turks are the historic enemy of the Russians, Arabs and the Persians. The US intervention force distracted the Russians, Arabs and Iranians from that underlying fact. None of these parties will defend the Kurds, but they will now be able to focus on frustrating Turkish President Erdogan’s pretense to restore Ottoman dominance.
After the Turks pound the Kurds one more time, the next order of business will be the reduction of the extremists in Idlib, whom Turkey has promised to protect. Turkey is likely to suffer a strategic humiliation in Idlib. This will break up the troika of Russia, Iran and Turkey. The withdrawal of US forces will remove anti-US hostility as the mastic that has encouraged the three historic enemies to work together.
The Kurds want to create a federal state. That won’t happen, but the US has empowered them. With better arms, training and experience, they are better equipped to negotiate an arrangement with the Syrian government and to resist the Turks. If the Turks attempt genocide, US airpower will remain in the region and on call.
Then the next order of business will be the re-emergence of the old hatred of the Turks. Russia, Syria and Iran eventually will induce Turkey to withdraw its forces back across the border. Turkey’s invasion of Syria; its support for Syrian Islamic extremist groups and its dalliances with Russia and China will diminish its stature in NATO. When there was an Islamist threat on NATO’s flank, the Turks sided with the Islamists.
With no US forces in Syria, the US will have the opportunity to have a relationship with Syria. In many indirect and important ways, the US military presence saved the Assad government by enabling its allies. However, the government in Damascus will be looking for opportunities to balance its dependence on Russia and Iran. The Russians will always be amenable to letting the US shoulder the costs of Syrian reconstruction.
As for Iran, Syria is a secular state, the last of the Ba’athists – pan-Arab socialists. Iran’s relationship with Syria during peace time always has been uneasy, bordering on unnatural.
Religion has almost nothing to do with the Syrian-Iranian relationship. It is based on the Syrian confrontation with Israel. The practices and beliefs of the Alawite sect in Syria border on heresy and apostasy for Sunni and Shia Muslims of strict observance.
For years, Syria has allowed Iran to use Syria as the conduit for arms to Hizballah, enabling Hizballah to open the Lebanese front on Israel’s northern border. Tension between Hizballah and Israel is likely to increase and could lead to conflict, but the US presence in Syria has been tangential to that scenario, despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Netanyahu to draw the US into the larger Arab-Israeli confrontation.
In Syria, the US has born the costs and fought the war for other parties who have stronger and more direct interests. The US military effort provided a security umbrella that enabled a measure of stability to in Syria.
That is an unintended consequence because stability in Syria was never an American policy objective.
The decision to withdraw forces from Syria is not likely to endanger our national security. Claims to the contrary are hyperbole. It is likely to change dynamics that will alter how are interests fare int he region, but those interests were not clearly defended with the troops there either.
It’s important to have such information when so many politicians are apt to oversimplify implications, or make false conclusions out of willful ignorance. Ignorance is anathema to confident military decisions, thus Secretary Mattis’ swift resignation. Yet, neither is it advisable when the chess pieces used into securing our nation’s interests are actually our nation’s finest men and women that deserve our respect and appreciation. That starts with making sure their lives are not risked for wrongheaded policies; and that begins with having ALL the information to make such decisions.