Exit Stage Left

Eleven million. Eleven million Syrians are today internally displaced persons or refugees. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War, raging since 2011, a long-lasting spin-off of the Arab Spring. The war pits Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group, against the Free Syrian Army, backed by Turkey.

But where is the United States in all of this conflict? Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pursued a policy of “strategic absence” in the conflict, but they support Kurdish rebels and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Yet more importantly, the U.S. has long been invested in defeating ISIS, which the government maintains is its main goal in the region, but the executive and the public alike have been equally concerned about the potential of adding boots on the ground. America has been bogged down in Afghanistan for seventeen years now, after all.

When, on Wednesday, December 19th, President Trump ordered the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, he probably expected a more positive response. Instead, Defense Secretary James Mattis added his name to the long list of those to exit the White House, effective February. In his resignation letter, Mattis said Trump deserves to have a Secretary of Defense “whose views are better aligned” with his own. Senator Lindsey Graham (R- SC), typically a reliable backer of his party-mates, tweeted that the move is a “huge Obama-like mistake” and is calling for Congressional hearings on the topic.

There is plenty of political bickering, but opinions regarding Trump’s actions are still split. Senator Graham rebukes it, tweeting again that “ISIS is not defeated” and that “withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and put our allies, the Kurds at risk.” An immediate exit would no doubt be destabilizing. Without the U.S., other governments across the Middle East and South Asia are worried about the resurgence of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Then there’s Hezbollah, who are well-positioned to determine what the future may look like in a Syria still ruled by Assad.

However, career diplomats like Jeffrey Feltman and Ryan Crocker don’t think that the removal of U.S. troops from Syria will be the end-all-be-all. Feltman, a former U.S. Ambassador and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations said the Middle East is still important, “but not as critically important to us as it was ten or fifteen or twenty years ago.” Crocker, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to both Syria and Afghanistan, admitted he was once committed to an American presence in Syria. “But, over the last six months, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not good enough and not smart enough to play the post-conflict game with our troops on the ground,” he says.

Whether we stay in Syria or not, it won’t affect the outcome very much. Our current strategy of airstrikes, absence, and aid makes it clear that we are resigned to a victory for the Assad regime. Staying, at this point, would only make the U.S. a player in post-conflict reconstruction, something we’ve been known to bungle in the past. Withdrawing troops might actually be the best option in Syria, but whether an America-sized hole in the Middle East ends up working out or not, the move will be debated for decades to come.

Sources: The New Yorker