The U.S. withdrawal from Syria may bring to a close an open-ended and strategically unclear military commitment and likely put at risk vital national security interests, according to some analysts.
“I guess the problem is that whereas our involvement doesn’t necessarily make things better, our lack of involvement doesn’t either,” said Mark Katz, a Russia and Middle East scholar and professor of politics at George Mason University in Virginia.
U.S. President Donald Trump surprised allies and adversaries with his decision in December to bring home the approximately 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria to help local militias defeat efforts by the Islamic State militant group to establish an Islamic extremist state.
Trump’s justification for a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria is that IS has been defeated or at least no longer controls any significant territory in Syria or Iraq; however, a deadly IS attack in Syria on Wednesday that killed four Americans, two service members and two civilians in Defense-related jobs, showed that the militant group remains active.
Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday reiterated the Trump administration’s reassurance that the Syria withdrawal does not mark the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in the region.
“We will protect the gains that our soldiers and our coalition partners have secured; but, this president has often spoken about his desire to bring an end to endless wars in America,” said Pence in a speech to diplomats at the State Department.
Critics worry the decision to leave Syria will undermine key U.S. strategic objectives: to prevent the threat of terrorism at home, to deter Iran’s growing military influence and power, and to defend U.S. ally Israel.
The IS attack does demonstrate that pockets of militants in Syria are still a threat. Without the American military presence, there is great concern that Islamic extremists could regroup and renew efforts to export terror attacks in Europe and the United States.
“My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Wednesday in response to the attack.
At the same time, the limited U.S. commitment in Syria is seen by many security analysts as insufficient to completely root out insurgents hiding within the civilian population in dysfunctional regions of Syria. A significant surge of military forces and expensive nation building efforts would likely be needed to pacify the country and deny IS any havens.
“A new Syria is required if you really want to get rid of ISIS, and that is well beyond our capacity to achieve. We are not going to spend $200 billion reconstructing Syria and certainly not in this administration,” said Aaron David Miller, the Middle East program director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He was using an acronym for Islamic State.
Allies and adversaries
U.S. adversaries Syria, Russia, Iran, as well as American ally Turkey would likely continue military efforts to target ISIS militants.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies would also be free to brutally crush moderate opposition to his authoritarian rule that was aiding the U.S. in Syria. And Turkey may confront the Syrian Kurdish militia that it sees as fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland that would include parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
Trump, in a Tweet, threatened to impose crippling economic sanctions on Turkey if it attacked the Kurds.
The Trump administration has come under strong criticism for abandoning American allies in Syria. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned over the Syria withdrawal, and in a letter to the president said the U.S. standing in the world depends on maintaining its alliances and commitments.
“We cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” Mattis wrote.
A U.S. Syria pullout would also pose a major threat to American strategic interests by ceding territory and influence to Iranian forces and allied militias, from which to launch attacks against Israel, creating the potential for a wider military conflict.
“Maybe this is the strategy, in other words, that let other people do the fighting. And then, you know, either they’ll want us back to calm things down, or they won’t, and they can just fight amongst themselves,” Katz said.