With the Republicans losing control of the House in January, expect calls for an ‘exit strategy’ from the Syrian civil war. A rapid exit would be a mistake. An immature withdrawal from Syria would be a catastrophic miscalculation parallel to that of 2011 when troops pulled out of Iraq under the Obama administration. In 2011, as Iraq witnessed a degree of stability thanks to US troop presence, the Kurds in the north advised the Americans to stay. These warnings were ignored, the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged just years later.
Today in Syria the war is gradually on the decline with only pockets of tension. The Assad regime is the clear victor over territories west of the Euphrates river, thanks to the aid of Russia and Iran. In the northwest, rebels and al Qaeda affiliates have managed to carve up territories with orders coming from Ankara, aiming to fulfill Erdogan’s Ottoman ambitions. However, in Northeast Syria, there exists stability far greater than that of 2011 Iraq. Controlled by our coalition partners the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), East of the Euphrates holds 2,000 US troops, a small but potent presence. It is in the United States national security interests to keep a long-term presence in Syria for the reasons below:
Iran is the single biggest threat to US national security interests in the Middle East. If the US decides to pack up and leave it will hand over to Iran 30 percent of Syrian territory. Syrian land is not all created equal. The land the US is protecting includes an estimated 52 percent of natural resources — not only oil but also agricultural land, major dams, pipelines, highways and access to the Euphrates. Iran aims to institutionalize its presence in Syria. Iran’s model for Syria is Hezbollah in Lebanon, coupled with the sort of underhanded methods Iran has used to undermine Iraq. A US withdrawal would offer Iran access to substantial resources at a time when their economy is teetering.
A troop pullout would also embolden the Ba’athist regime in Syria to overtake territory in the northeast. Both to push back Assad’s ambitions of reconquering all of Syria, and to hinder Iran’s expansionist agenda, America must stay in Syria. The United States mustn’t indirectly give Iran the greenlight to permanently set up camp in another Arab state. The US has an opportunity to prevent Iran from further escalating tensions in an already-ravaged Middle East.
Befriend the Kurds
The United States most reliable and stable ally has been the Kurds. The US-Kurdish military partnership has drastically improved since 2011, and the fight against ISIS has only reinforced that they are a reliable and resilient minority. The Kurds in Syria have defended their historical territories east of the Euphrates while battling not only the Islamic State but other terror organizations, Iranian backed groups, and the Assad regime. Continuing to support the Kurds allows US soldiers to stick to their ‘train, advise and equip’ policy.
According to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an on-the-ground based reporter and analyst, with extensive experience in northeast Syria states that “the SDF are a unified force, they provide the security for all ethnic and religious minorities, they allow journalists and NGOs to work freely in the areas they control, they have zero tolerance for corruption and looting, and have a great recruiting track record.” As the conflict winds down, the US can transform its military partnership with the SDF into a political relationship by supporting the governing system, the Syrian Democratic Council.
The alliance with the Kurds gives the US another advantage: it gives their presence legitimacy. As long as the SDC continues, US troops are in Syria with the permission of over 4 million local citizens. This is just. The Assad regime no longer has a legitimacy in the northeast. The SDC alliance shows that Assad’s argument that the US is in Syria without authorization is not valid. The US effort is legitimized by the very governing system that Assad would like to destroy.