On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats released a Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The report stated that Syria intends to “strike a favorable deal with the Kurds while also seeking to limit Turkey’s presence.” Officials also testified that Islamic State was greatly weakened but its fighters were fleeing and planning attacks from elsewhere. In light of this, President Donald Trump’s decision to remove American forces from Syria is the right idea but needs much better execution. American’s men and women in uniform must eventually come home. However, the Trump administration should do more to work with U.S. Kurdish partners on a plan for what happens next and focus on stopping future terrorist attacks.
Syrian leader Bashar Assad, with Russia’s backing, has re-conquered most of the country and the peace process continues to be dominated by the ongoing negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, being hashed out by Iran, Russia and Turkey. The notion that America can simply oust Assad does not realistically consider who would take his place and how order would be restored without committing U.S. forces to another decadeslong peacebuilding mission in the region.
It is important to remember that former President Barack Obama did not obtain congressional support for striking the Assad regime. According to a Jan. 19 opinion poll by the Pew Research Center, Americans are nearly evenly split — with 43 percent supporting withdrawal and 45 percent opposed. Public opinion in a democracy matters and Americans do not overwhelmingly support a policy of regime change in Syria.
On a tactical level, the small presence of 2,000 U.S. forces is not enough to dictate the terms in postwar Syria. Assad is a brutal dictator, yet the window for intervention has passed. Americans do not want to lose further U.S. lives and treasure in pursuit of what they know are unobtainable objectives — such as removing Assad without chaos or risking war with Russia.
In addition, ISIS has lost 99 percent of its territory and is far from the threat it used to be. Washington can continue to fight against it and protect Americans from attacks without boots on the ground. America has vast intelligence and surveillance information that can be used to warn of upcoming attacks and to help allies target ISIS fighters. U.S. warplanes have been involved in the fight and will continue to be. ISIS insurgents have begun fleeing to other countries since they’ve lost their physical safe haven. This is why strong border security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security matter more than boots on the ground in Syria now. Trump should also refocus on preventing terrorist attacks at home as ISIS fighters scatter to the wind without their caliphate to return to.
In order to properly withdraw from Syria, Trump needs to make his policy clear and work with his advisers and allies to fill in the details. The leaks and rumors of infighting between the State Department and the Defense Department reveal a lack of understanding and coordination over what the White House wants to accomplish in the long term. A lack of end-goal planning can get America in trouble when we intervene, and in trouble when we leave.
Our troops need an exact withdrawal timeline and a plan to ensure some protections for America’s Kurdish partners in northwestern Syria. Already, there has been a back-and-forth between what Trump, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said is the official plan. It appears that the withdrawal will be slower and may include some conditions, such as protections for the Kurds. Trump also threatened Turkey, when he tweeted that he “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.” He also said that he wanted to create a “20-mile safe zone,” although it is unclear what that means.
Already, major actors in the Syrian civil war have begun planning for what comes next. The Kurds are seeking reconciliation with the Assad regime and Russia to rebuild Syria. Trump needs to help these parties come to an agreement that reduces civilian suffering and provides some protections for America’s Kurdish partners. This should be doable as Russia, Syria and the Kurds have a shared interest in preventing further Turkish encroachment.
Meanwhile, Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey are all inheriting a still-fractious, war-torn country that will take decades or more to rebuild. Leaving will not be a major boost to America’s rival powers but rather a drain on their resources and a headache for their leaders. Besides, Syria was always more important to its neighbors than it was to America and U.S. interests will not suffer greatly from a withdrawal. No matter one’s views, the withdrawal should prompt an important — and much-needed — debate about America’s role in the Middle East, what wars should be fought, and what costs taxpayers are willing to bear. Trump has the right idea on Syria, but he needs to do a much better job of executing his plans.
John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities and a writer for Young Voices, a nonprofit public relations entity. He is also an assistant managing editor with The National Interest.