Taking Stock of the Syria Withdrawal Decision

The Syria withdrawal decision is criticized on many fronts but most critics complain more about the style and timing than the substance of it. More importantly, they have failed to propose a realistic policy goal that justifies an indefinite U.S. presence.

Taking Stock of the Syria Withdrawal Decision
A picture taken on December 30, 2018, shows a line of US military vehicles in Syria's northern city of Manbij. Getty Images

The Syria withdrawal decision continues to stir a highly politicized debate among foreign policy professionals, including former and current government officials. Several arguments are made against the President’s decision but none of them provide a strong rationale for an open-ended American military presence in northern Syria. These critics also forget that the continued U.S. military presence in northern Syria and the support for the YPG were becoming increasingly unsustainable in the face of Turkish opposition. The decision actually opened up possibilities for a robust U.S.-Turkey cooperation on the ground to achieve sustainable stability and a truly enduring defeat of Daesh.

One of the most repeated anti-withdrawal arguments, articulated by the former U.S. envoy for the anti-Daesh coalition, is directed against the President’s declaration that Daesh is defeated. Ignoring the fact that Daesh no longer controls territory in northern Syria, proponents of this view argue that Daesh is far from defeated. They cite the most recent terrorist attack in the town of Manbij as a perfect example of what happens if the U.S. leaves. Yet, critics fail to provide a definition of what would constitute a defeat of Daesh and in what time frame they expect to reach that goal. Daesh or its remnants in one form or another may survive and pose a threat but it is in no way comparable to holding territory and declaring a caliphate. Moreover, Turkey has been committed to the lasting defeat of Daesh, exemplified by the thousands of Turkish soldiers on the frontlines.

Critics of the U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Syria forget that the continued U.S. military presence in northern Syria and the support for the YPG were becoming increasingly unsustainable in the face of Turkish opposition.

It should also be remembered that the U.S. “partners” on the ground, the PKK-linked YPG forces, have not shied away from subtle threats in an effort to delay and complicate an American departure for their political purposes. The U.S. policymakers, since the fall of 2014, have ignored the regional political game the YPG/PKK has been trying to play. Their bid to present themselves as the “most effective fighting force” against Daesh was meant to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the U.S. despite Turkish opposition. Turkey has been adamantly against the U.S. investment in the YPG and the opponents of the Syria withdrawal continue to underestimate Turkish determination to curb the political aspirations of the Syrian branch of the PKK. This dynamic presented the U.S. with a clear choice between partnering with a recycled terror group and working with a NATO ally. 

“Abandoning Kurds” has become a phrase thrown around rather easily, without making a distinction between different Kurdish groups. The phrase has curtailed the fact the YPG has been opposed to rights of Kurdish groups not aligned with the PKK.

Another argument leveled against the withdrawal decision has been that the U.S. would lose credibility vis-a-vis potential future partners. “Abandoning Kurds” has become a phrase thrown around rather easily, without making a distinction between different Kurdish groups. The phrase has curtailed the fact the YPG has been opposed to rights of Kurdish groups not aligned with the PKK. The question of the U.S. one day leaving the region is not a new one and the YPG has sought to hedge against that possibility from day one, as they sought an understanding with the Assad regime as well as with Russia. It is no surprise for them nor for any serious student of local and regional dynamics.

The Syria withdrawal decision is criticized on many fronts but most critics complain more about the style and timing than the substance of it. More importantly, they have failed to propose a realistic policy goal that justifies an indefinite U.S. presence. It is also unconvincing that the U.S. could achieve some of the geopolitical goals, such as countering Iran, with such a small force in northern Syria. The argument for not leaving a vacuum that might be filled by Russia also lacks weight since the U.S. has already allowed Russia to play a much larger role since the Obama administration. The direct consequence of the decision will actually be working with Turkey. In this sense, the most critical aspect of the withdrawal decision might just be that the U.S. is deciding to work with its NATO ally in a serious way to achieve lasting stability in northern Syria.