The United States has had a long, varied approach to the crisis in Syria. Red lines have been drawn and ignored, missile strikes became commonplace, troops entered the region. Now it appears that we are leaving Syria. Contradictions and failed promises marked our time there. But even with the country’s chaotic recent past, it is unwise for the U.S. to leave Syria under Russian influence and the leadership of Bashar al-Assad.
In the spring of 2011, protests erupted in Syria. Many people called for Assad to step down. President Obama echoed the protesters’ message and many Western leaders followed suit. But he promised no U.S. military intervention in Syria, unless the Assad regime used chemical weapons. In August of 2013, Assad carried out a chemical attack in Damascus. Accordingly, Obama asked Congress to approve a military intervention, but it was denied. Russia saw an opening and stepped in, promising to help remove all chemical weapons from Syria.
As the war continued, the U.S. began supplying Syrian rebels with weapons while beginning targeted airstrikes. To complicate matters further, ISIS joined the fight in an attempt to expand its territorial control. U.S. airstrikes targeted both Assad’s forces and ISIS fighters. In 2016, U.S. troops began training and fighting alongside Syrian rebels against ISIS forces (Politico, April 7, 2017). Currently, over 2,000 American military personnel remain in Syria.
Soon after President Trump came into office, another chemical attack took place. Trump responded by carrying out a missile strike on the Syrian military base where the attack originated. More troops were sent to advise Syrian rebel and Kurdish fighters. Among the key allies in the conflict are the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. In fact, these soldiers account for many of the U.S.-trained and -armed rebels in the country (Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2019).
In December 2018, Trump announced the withdrawal of all American forces from Syria. He claimed ISIS had been defeated, and that we had therefore accomplished our mission.
This withdrawal is a mistake for two reasons. First, we are leaving our allies behind to fend for themselves. Second, we are allowing Russia to become an even greater player in the region. Both issues were addressed in Secretary of Defense Mattis’s resignation letter. Mattis stated that America’s strength in the world comes from strong partnerships, ones like those our troops forged with the Kurds. With the U.S. withdrawal, we are leaving them helpless against attacks from all sides—particularly from Turkey. Turkey views the Kurds as a terrorist force and has vowed to fight them now that the U.S. is leaving. We promised to help the Kurds. Now, we are abandoning them.
The second issue that Mattis raised in his resignation letter was the danger of leaving Russia unchecked. He argued that Russia seeks to shape the world through authoritarian means. An example is its backing of Assad. Russia has made it clear that Assad will remain in power. Whatever hope the Syrian people had for deposing him has died with the U.S. withdrawal. Because of it, the U.S. no longer has bargaining power. The future of Syria is in the hands of Vladimir Putin.
No matter your thoughts on U.S. intervention in Syria, our strategy since 2011 has been weak and ineffective. Neither President Obama nor President Trump has devised a successful plan for our involvement. Now, after millions of dollars have been spent and seven U.S. service members have lost their lives, we are withdrawing from the conflict claiming “mission accomplished”—leaving Syria to be shaped by Russia, and our allies thereto fend for themselves. It is hard to ask the U.S. public to support continued involvement in the Syrian conflict or to ask service members to risk their lives in a situation Americans know little about, but simply withdrawing from the region is not the answer either. The United States must revisit its strategy and come up with a more sustainable solution. This new strategy needs to be one that protects the Kurds and does not allow Russia to have free rein in Syria.