Skip to main content

Conditioning American withdrawal from Syria

Now that President Donald Trump has announced US forces will be soon leaving Syria, the administration must rethink its previously stated conditions for withdrawal.
A member of U.S forces rides on a military vehicle in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RC1FBF066A10

Back in January, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that American objectives in Syria were to suppress any Islamic State (IS) resurgence, oust Bashar al-Assad from power, reduce Iranian influence, continue to back a Kurdish-dominated enclave and reassure our Turkish allies. This speech has now disappeared from the State Department website, along with all the former secretary of state's other pronouncements. And this week, President Donald Trump announced that American forces will soon be withdrawn from Syria, while the State Department put a hold on further stabilization assistance to areas liberated from IS.

Tillerson’s announced objectives were mutually incompatible and largely unachievable, even were the United States to sustain its modest level of military and economic engagement in Syria. Trump’s announcement, therefore, makes some sense, but only if conditioned on a more modest set of conditions for withdrawal.

The absolute minimum condition compatible with America’s honor and credibility is to help its Kurdish allies negotiate an arrangement with the Damascus regime (and with Turkey) that affords them some degree of political autonomy and allows them to continue to secure their population in the east of the country. Simply walking away and allowing these former partners to be crushed between two hostile forces would be the worst debacle for America since the fall of South Vietnam. What future partner would want to risk blood to support shared interests if their fate is to be discarded as soon as convenient?

The second condition for leaving would significantly improve the chances of not having to return. The United States could offer to fully withdraw its forces from Syria and normalize relations with the government in Damascus once all foreign militias have also left the country. Assad has won the civil war. If he wants to keep Russian and Iranian advisers, there is little to stop him. But Hezbollah fighters should return to Lebanon, and the thousands of other Shiite militias should return to Afghanistan and the other lands from whence they came. If they do not and instead they remain and bring their families, the ethnic makeup of the country will be permanently altered and Israel will permanently face an Iranian proxy on a second front.

Fortunately, Assad has several reasons to want the militias to leave once his position is secured. First, their presence constrains the state’s sovereignty since Assad needs to account for these fighters’ interests in return for their contribution to the war effort. Second, the presence of foreign militias increases the risk that Israel would employ greater military force in Syria, one of the few things that truly threatens Assad’s fate at this point in the conflict. And finally, the withdrawal of foreign militias would also apply to many of the Sunni extremists that the regime is currently pushing into Idlib to kill or expel.

The apparent administration move to withhold stabilization assistance to those Syrians the United States has helped liberate from IS, destroying many of their communities in the process, would be both heartless and counterproductive. The United States and its international partners should offer stabilization and reconstruction assistance to any community in Syria that forms a representative local council that is ready to work with donors, even in regime-held areas, but particularly in regions where much of the damage has been the result of American-supported military operations.

The Syrian civil war has been a source of instability and radicalization extending throughout the Middle East. The quicker it is brought to a conclusion, the better it will be for Syrians and their neighbors. The Syrian state has been closely aligned with Russia and Iran for decades. Six or seven years ago, when the civil war began, there might have been a chance to force a change, but that opportunity has passed. The best that can be hoped for at this late stage is that post-war Syria is no worse than pre-war Syria. That means coming to terms with the regime on the condition that all the foreign militias leave. Assad himself will want these foreign fighters to leave once he no longer needs them. The sooner that day comes, the better.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Free

The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.

Free

What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing
Expert

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to pro.support@al-monitor.com and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial