Changing the War on Terror: Ramifications of the US Withdrawal from Syria
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
The US have been involved in combatting Islamic State (IS) in Syria since September 2014, initially taking the form of on-the-ground surveillance missions. Collaborating with forces from Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, attacks were launched against IS strongholds in the country, eventually reducing their territorial holdings to just 5% of that which it claimed in 2014. In January 2018, US President Donald Trump announced intentions to remain in Syria to keep checks on Iranian influence and to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. After new military strategies to achieve these ends were established in September, it took the world by surprise when on 19th December, the US government announced its decision to withdraw 2,000 troops from the country.
The possible ramifications of this decision, assuming it is carried out, will be manifold. Fear of a power vacuum following the withdrawal is a threat felt both within and beyond the Trump administration. Jim Mattis, the now former-Defence Secretary, famously resigned following the announcement. As a ‘staunch supporter of America’s alliance network and of using US military strength to assert American values and interests globally’, Mattis felt obliged to step down as the withdrawal stands in contravention of his own convictions. (1) His resignation has alarmed many, with the international media suggesting that the Trump administration had lost “the only adult in the room”. (2) It is likely that Mattis’ departure was the result of cumulative foreign policy clashes with Trump, but it nevertheless testifies to the sensitivity of the Syrian situation.
In the immediate uproar which followed the announcement, Trump tweeted: “We have defeated Isis in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency”. Despite huge successes in the region, this statement is fallacious at best, and has given rise to further fears over withdrawal. US National Security Advisor John Bolton has tried to ease tensions by assuring US allies that the departure will only take place once IS has been vanquished entirely, and with a Turkish pledge not to attack Kurdish forces in the region. (3) His statements seem to stand in stark contrast with those of the President, appearing as an attempt to clear up the mess made by the latter’s abrupt and somewhat unjustified decision to leave Syria.
The Kurdish forces in the region are also among those bearing the brunt of the US decision to withdraw. The Kurds are the largest “stateless nation”, with a population reaching between 20 and 40 million people. They inhabit 4 Middle Eastern states – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – with the 1-2 million in Syria having played an instrumental role in combatting the terrorist threat posed by IS. This Kurdish Popular Protection Unit (YPG) has long since been allied to the US in the battle against first Al Qaeda, and now IS. However, Turkey has branded the YPG a terrorist group, and thus on a par with IS, who jeopardise their national security. They consider the YPG an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who have fought for autonomy in Turkey for almost four decades, and are therefore potentially infringing on Turkish national sovereignty. These circumstances threaten to elevate the conflict to trilateral status, with a ‘Turkey v Syria’s Kurds v Islamic State’ situation not inconceivable without US troops to act as a buffer. (4) Syrian Kurds are thus seriously concerned that the absence of a US force would encourage Turkey to increase the regularity and severity of attacks on their bases.
The complexity of Turkish relations with the Syrian Kurds is therefore distracting from (and thus perpetuating) the threat of IS in the region. If the US withdraws entirely or radically reduces its presence, the potential regrowth of terrorist groups is made increasingly possible if Turkish and Kurdish forces are preoccupied with fighting each other. The Pentagon itself has openly voiced concerns that IS could gain a strong foothold in a matter of months or potentially less if this is the case. Whether or not IS launch sporadic attacks against US troops as they leave, it is likely that it ‘will leverage the event as a 'victory' in its media’, boosting their insurgents’ morale in turn. (5) Trump has met these concerns by assuring the international community that, if IS begins regaining territory, the US has sufficient technology to get its troops back on the ground in Syria with rapid speed. (6) The tenacity with which Trump pursues the withdrawal is a reflection not only of his character, but also the fact that his decision is likely one of expediency. In other words, despite being an inadvisable time to withdraw troops, for Trump it is a convenient decision which will allow him to step away from the Middle East and focus on the domestic turmoil erupting in the US government.
As with any bold political move, it is impossible to predict what eventuality the US withdrawal will generate, but it seems reasonable to expect that it will boost IS in one way or another. That is, of course, assuming that Trump actually follows through with the plans to withdraw, which are not set in stone at this current stage. The likelihood of Turkey continuing to alienate the US-backed Kurds in Syria is high, but Ankara and Washington, as two NATO partners, must ensure that their relationship does not sour excessively. In mid-January, Trump threatened to ‘devastate Turkey economically if they hit [the] Kurds’ but has since negotiated with Turkish President Erdogan to create a 20 mile ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian border. This will allow for the protection of those who are fighting IS, whilst simultaneously preventing cross-border attacks by either party. It is measures such as these which must be put in place to keep the defeat of IS a priority. Either way, the US withdrawal will see the disappearance of a curb on Turkish influence in the region – something to pay close attention to, if and when the time comes for American departure.
At the time of writing, Issy Williams is a final year History and Languages student at the University of Bristol. She is most interested in contemporary power politics in Russia and the Middle East.