Both the Obama administration and now more acutely the Trump administration have made catastrophic mistakes in Syria that are costing the United States. Both administrations underestimated the extent to which NATO ally Turkey would go to protect its own interests, how Russia and Iran would rally behind Bashar al-Assad, and that the Assad regime’s pernicious form of governance was the central driver of conflict in Syria—of which the Islamic State is a symptom.
Instead, the United States chose to focus narrowly on countering the Islamic State by working with local partners alongside a coalition of international allies. The coalition was successful in eliminating the Islamic State’s territorial control and building a semblance of inclusive, subnational governance until last week’s rupture.
The United States worked most closely with the highly capable and reliable People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization. For Turkey, the PKK is an existential threat.
With devastating irony, this was the tragic flaw in the U.S. approach—the foundation upon which U.S. presence in Syria was built was cracked from the outset. Coalition efforts to strengthen it held longer than expected and likely could have lasted long enough to achieve U.S. objectives and depart responsibly. But it could not withstand a precipitous decision to leave the field entirely. So, it collapsed.
The implications of U.S. failures in Syria are grave.
First, five years of counterterrorism gains have evaporated. Tens of thousands of Islamic State detainees under YPG control will soon either join the ranks of the Islamic State insurgency or be transferred to the Assad government’s control. Assad has a history of using extremists to destabilize neighbors and to taint domestic opposition to legitimatize his oppression.
Second, U.S. allies and partners now have serious doubts about U.S. credibility, putting at risk U.S. ability to forge future coalitions.
Third, the YPG’s deal with the Assad regime, understandable for its own survival, has now ushered Assad and Russian forces into the northeast, potentially enabling the reestablishment of Assad’s control over an additional one-third of the country.
Fourth, the benefits of U.S. presence in Syria’s northeast to deter Iranian proxies and military buildup has now been removed, although a small garrison of forces at al-Tanf near Jordan’s border remains for now.
The United States has squandered its leverage in Syria.
Russia will try to capitalize upon the U.S. withdrawal to move toward a Syrian political settlement in concert with its interests. Conflict will continue to shape Syria, with international reconstruction assistance and the return of refugees remaining aspirational goals obstructed by corruption and insecurity throughout Syria. U.S. economic pressure on Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Assad government to shape their behavior may extract minor concessions but will not strategically impact the course of the conflict. (end of excerpt)
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