President Trump’s announcement that the United States will end its military presence in Syria “very soon” represents a significant departure from the administration’s previous position that the United States will maintain its deployment indefinitely. Currently, there are an estimated 2,000 U.S. troops operating in eastern Syria, most of them working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led umbrella force that has liberated the country’s eastern provinces from ISIS. Withdrawing from Syria right now would be reckless. Despite Trump’s reluctance, the United States has a much greater role to play that can prevent a resurgence of ISIS, push back against Iranian expansionism, and ensure the country is not engulfed in a state of perpetual warfare.
As the Iraq experience shows, withdrawals leave a void that can be filled by America’s enemies. Iran moved to capitalize on the space left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. That proved to be critical to Iran’s dominance in Syria, as Iraq was a crucial transit point that reinforced the Assad regime with substantial arms and tens of thousands of powerful Iraqi Shiite militias who are now the most dominant force on the ground. It also resulted in the marginalization of Arab Sunnis and Kurds and intensified ethnic and sectarian tensions that arguably enabled the emergence of ISIS in 2014.
Withdrawing from Syria will hasten the resurgence of ISIS as Syria continues to live up to its status as the humanitarian calamity of the century and will be the scene of devastating conflict for years, if not decades, to come. Syrians’ collective consciousness has been shaped by almost a decade of war, and their past will almost certainly shape their future. The scars of war provide the structural conditions that allow groups like ISIS and their ilk to thrive. Meanwhile, it would be folly to assume a deal could be struck with Russia—not when it has been under its watch that ISIS established its “caliphate,” and not when under its protection the Assad regime has killed 400,000 civilians.
The Syrian civil war stopped being about the Syrian people a long time ago—it is now the battleground for the future of the Middle East regional order and the balance of power that comes with it. Powerful, transnational armed groups backed by outside actors have taken advantage of the breakdown of borders and the fragility of the Syrian state—and with devastating impact. They will continue to disrupt and destroy at will, at the behest of their international patrons.
Amid this dangerous mix, withdrawing from Syria will allow a Russia-dominated security architecture in the region and hasten the hegemony of Iran. While Iranian hegemony will be unacceptable throughout the region, other countries in the Middle East are too weak to effectively confront Iran without U.S. support and leadership. At best—and if left to fight on their own—America’s allies can sustain the proxy war but will only create a headache for Iran and Russia. They likely won’t alter the balance of power or change anything on the ground. In short, this is a recipe to keep Syria engulfed in a constant state of warfare.
Source » brookings