WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2018 (PRNewswire): President Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria is being described as abrupt, but he has said he would do this for some time. The announcement seems to have caught many in national security by surprise. But planning for this eventuality has been underway for a while.
Security Studies Group (SSG) was asked in early 2018 to draft a plan for US withdrawal, with a focus on working with allies in the region and some tribes in Syria. The concept was to work with Sunni tribes similarly to the Anbar Awakening in Iraq during the period known as The Surge. As ISIS was pushed out, the plan would be to arm and train local citizenry into militias and police forces so they could protect themselves. Kurdish forces, that had been so helpful in the fight against ISIS, were also predicted to continue to act as security for their own areas.
SSG’s plan further anticipated working with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other regional allies to provide resources and security assistance to this effort. This followed the President’s stated desire that those who live in the neighborhood should have skin in the game. Once ISIS was defeated, the goal was (then) to ensure Iran could not solidify a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea and to implement applicable United Nations Security Council Resolutions relating to Syria.
We published a public version of this plan on April 8, 2018 and provided a more detailed version to the Trump Administration. During the intervening months, the actions against ISIS have continued quite successfully and President Trump determined that the military mission would end. This did not mean efforts to achieve other US goals for Syria would stop but that they would be pursued using other modalities of US power and with assistance from allies.
SSG recently released the portions of our plan that were redacted from the public version. We did this following the President’s withdrawal announcement, which made revealing vulnerabilities of US forces and potential negotiations with allies no longer a concern. The redacted sections are as follows:
The American Position
The United States military currently deploys about two thousand personnel in an advisory role. Force protection for these elements is provided especially by air and fire support. Such support recently allowed a small contingent of American forces to wipe out a large Russian mercenary element. Nevertheless, the strength of the position should not be overestimated.
American personnel are spread out and isolated from one another in many places. They are advising, and are thus co-located with, irregular forces that could not have themselves withstood the Russianmercenaries. The Turkish military, which is likely to aim at America’s Kurdish allies, is far more powerfuland has integrated air support, fire support, and the capacity to contest control of the air with fighters and anti-aircraft defenses. Russian technology limiting America’s air support advantage will only growwith time, and the Russians have reportedly deployed advanced Su-57 stealth fighters in theater.
Additionally, American elements in Iraq are co-located with Iraqi units that feature Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) as skirmishers. These PMF are loyal to Iran, and could be turned against scattered Americans or even headquarters elements at a moment’s notice.
Contrast with Obama-era Withdrawal
The President has faced some criticism that suggests that a withdrawal from Syria repeats the Obama- era error that led to the rise of ISIS. There are significant differences between the circumstances of that era and the present one. Politically, the Obama administration inherited a political settlement that only had to be kept stable. The purpose of American troops in Iraq was merely to ensure that the Iraqi government, though divided along sectarian lines, kept to the negotiated agreements that brought especially Sunni tribes into the fold. There is no danger of destabilizing a political settlement in Syria because there is no political settlement in Syria to jeopardize.
Strategically, the present situation is much more dangerous for American forces. The 2011 presence in Iraq involved large scale conventional maneuver units that had organic combined arms capabilities. They operated from defensible Forward Operating Bases containing American field artillery, surrounded by Combat Outposts that provided a flanking capacity combined with overlapping fields of mortar fire. Even if one of the regional conventional militaries had openly joined the war against the 2011 American military position, they would have found the American position unassailable.
That is not the case today. It may be that the Turkish military can be convinced to accept an American plan that does not bring them into conflict with the Kurdish units we are supporting, but at this time there is no guarantee of that. Iranian or even Iraqi conventional units may turn against us if the Iranian regime makes the calculation that the time is right expel US forces. An American decision simply toremain in place could lead to battlefield reverses including potentially significant casualties. Some of those casualties could be among hard-to-replace SOF units that represent strategic American assets.
The choice before the Obama administration was simply to stay, or to go. The Trump administration must choose between withdrawing from an untenable position, or reinforcing that position so that it becomes tenable. Otherwise, the deployed American forces are at risk of becoming hostages to the enemy at best. At worst, they are at risk of being destroyed.
The GCC Opportunity is Now or Never
The window for the GCC to establish a protectorate in Syria is short unless America does the unexpected and chooses to reinforce its position there. Otherwise, the GCC is looking at a brief opportunity. Once the American forces begin to withdraw, there will be substantially less protection for their deployment. The Jordanian military can offset this to some degree if the King of Jordan agrees to participate, and the Saudis especially should be asked to encourage Jordanian support for the mission.
Even so, the Iranian interest in controlling these regions through their proxy forces will mean that the opportunity to stand up a protectorate will be limited. Delays will be costly as the Iranians move to assistAssad’s regime in consolidating control. What could be done rapidly and cheaply in the next few weeks will be expensive and difficult if the moment is missed.
The President’s decision is partly related to an attempt to re-strengthen the alliance between the US and Turkey. The announcement of a major arms deal signals the desire to return Turkey to its previous role as a strong NATO partner and pull them out of Russia and Iran’s orbit. This would include Turkey providing security assistance in Northern Syria and re-opening their border for trade with the resource rich areas in that region.
SSG President Jim Hanson explains our current position: “The withdrawal of US forces creates challenges, but also opportunities. Iran must not be allowed to capitalize on this and we must marshal all methods to make their continued intrusion in Syria too costly for them to continue. We must also work to ensure our allies the Kurds are given some autonomy and freedom in all the countries where they currently live. And we must do our best to bring Turkey closer to its true allies.”
More SSG Resources on Syria
- Syria Archive
- An Endgame for Syria: Full Public Plan
- The Secrets of SSG’s Syria Strategy, Revealed (National Security Council version)
- The Assad Regime’s Financial Viability (Monograph)