A congressionally appointed panel is calling on the Donald Trump administration to halt the US military withdrawal from Syria as part of a set of comprehensive changes to salvage the four-year US campaign to defeat the Islamic State in the war-torn country.
Created after Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. tucked the review into an aviation funding bill nearly a year ago, the bipartisan Syria Study Group’s final report makes an effort to keep the US military mission narrowly focused on defeating IS while reaching deals with Russia toward a political settlement of the four-year war and Turkey to preserve the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
While the call to reverse the pullout coming from a range of Washington foreign policy experts would stand at odds with Trump’s long-standing desire to get US troops out of Syria, members of the panel made the case that America’s military role there is far less costly than long-standing fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We try very clearly in the report to articulate how the US military presence in Syria is not in the category of forever wars,” said Dana Stroul, a co-chair of the group and a former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This is a military mission that’s not resource intensive like Iraq and Afghanistan and we should continue to maintain it.”
The attempt to refocus American strategy in Syria comes as the Pentagon’s inspector general said the US-led effort to defeat IS faltered since Trump first called for troops to leave the country in December, decreasing support for partners such as the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Since that point, US troop levels have fallen to around 1,000 as the Trump administration has sought to enforce a safe zone and keep a lid on Al-Hol, a large camp for IS families in Syria’s northeast.
Syria envoy James Jeffrey publicly disputed the findings of that inquiry in an interview earlier this week, saying the United States has managed to backfill its presence with European troops and American forces in Iraq.
“The mission is not complete,” said Stroul. “The SDF also needs to transition into holding and building in the territories that they occupy.” The report calls for the SDF to sever links with leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey and the United States label as a terrorist organization, and for Ankara to engage in fresh peace talks with the group.
The delivery of the report — which sought consensus among Democratic and Republican panelists — comes as the United Nations-backed peace process scored a victory on the first day of the world body’s general assembly meeting on Monday with the formation of a 150-member constitutional committee tasked with rewriting Syria’s charter at the end of the eight-year war.
Though the United States formally backs the process, it does not include the SDF, which served as front-line units in the counter-IS fight. Last week, the Senate’s powerful appropriations panel called on the State Department to spend $130 million to stabilize Syria, at odds with the Trump administration’s efforts to zero out the fund.
Panelists assumed that Russia and Iran will “at some point in time exhaust their capacity or willingness to maintain [President Bashar al-]Assad’s intransigence,” said Stroul, now with the Washington Institute. “They are not able to retake Idlib without Iranian ground forces.” The expert grouping is calling for Iran to exit step by step by supporting Israeli airstrikes, continuing sanctions against proxy groups and keeping open the US military base at Tanf that sits astride an Iranian military supply line.
Yet the Trump administration’s optimism about diminishing Russian and Iranian willingness to fight in Syria has been proven wrong in the past. A US official told Al-Monitor in December that Russia and Iran would soon exhaust themselves. Yet in recent weeks, military activity in the contested city of Idlib, one of the last remaining opposition holdouts in Syria, has increased, backstopped by Iranian proxy forces and Russian airstrikes.
With Trump’s pullout progressing this year, former leaders of the US strategy have come out with critical words opposing the drawdown. Retired US Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel, who sought to keep US objectives more narrowly focused on IS’ defeat, wrote an op-ed criticizing the safe zone plan earlier this summer.
Others, such as Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy to the anti-IS coalition, have warned that a stepped-up US strategy focusing on pushing Iran out, seeing Assad change his governance structure and ensuring IS’ ouster will require more resources.
“Our objectives have increased, and then the president says pull out all your resources, or 50% of your resources,” McGurk said at an event earlier this month. “If you don't have your ends and your means aligned, your policy isn't stable. And I think in Syria right now, that's where we are.”
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