I want to share a few thoughts on the President’s announcement this morning that US Forces and personnel will be immediately, or as immediate as is ever possible when the military is involved, withdrawn from Syria. Some of you are aware that I was involved with, and provided inputs for, the development of the US’s theater strategy for combatting ISIS in Syria and Iraq specifically through pre-deployment strategic analysis and assessment, and have provided remote reachback support to senior personnel (both a former boss and a number of my former students) deployed at Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and its subordinate elements. I have also either been asked if I would be willing to deploy back to Iraq or have offered to do so several times since 2013. None of those potential deployments materialized. Please keep all of this in mind when you read this post. I clearly have some subjective involvement in and attachment to what we’re currently doing, even with the changes that were made once the current administration came into office in January 2017. I’m going to keep this as brief as possible to avoid potential problems related to my past work on this problem set.
This morning the President announced that he was ordering an immediate withdrawal of US military and civilian personnel from Syria. We now know what that means, provided it is not changed, adjusted, and/or cancelled given that DOD, State, and the National Security Council and Staff appear to have been blindsided by the President’s announcement.
BREAKING — All US troops to withdraw from Syria in 60-100 days, US official to Reuters
— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) December 19, 2018
The immediate, within 24 hour removal of State Department personnel, while not logistically difficult, is a huge issue. The personnel being withdrawn were working on the civilian side of the Stability Operations we are conducting. This includes the USAID personnel who are working with internally displaced Syrians, as well as refugees in the region and coordinating humanitarian relief and assistance with local NGOs and other local groups. The military withdrawal will, of course, take longer because it isn’t just removing personnel, but equipment, which will obviously take longer than 24 hours.
So what, exactly, are we actually doing in Syria? What is it that will stop as a result of this withdrawal order? We are basically doing two things in Syria. The first is a train, advise, and assist mission with our local Syrian partners who are predominantly Kurdish, but some are Arabs, who are fighting ISIS. This is a Special Forces mission supported by a some Marine Corps artillery. The second thing we’re doing is, as an extension of the train, advise, and assist mission, conducting stability operations among the Syrian population where we are partnered with and training our local Syrian partners. This is being done within a “by, with, and through” strategy of partnering with vetted local groups. If we pull out there will be four immediate effects.
- The collapse of the local stabilization we’re contributing to. This will result in increased internally displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees who will flee ahead of both Syrian and ISIS efforts to fill the vacuum the withdrawal will create.
- As a result of the first effect, we will see an increased humanitarian crisis in the areas we withdraw from.
- We will once again have abandoned the Kurds despite the promises we’ve made to them, which further diminishes the United States ability to exercise any form of national power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic), because it further demonstrates that we can’t be trusted, won’t keep our word, and can’t be counted on.
- The vacuum and destabilization created by the withdrawal will be filled by both Syrian forces and ISIS. They will move to occupy and control the areas we’ve left, will fight each other in them, and this will lead to further destabilization in Syria and, potentially, throughout the Levant. It creates new stresses, challenges, and threats for Iraq and Lebanon, as well as for Israel and Turkey even though both of those states have been pursuing their own interests in Syria. And because of increased refugee outflows, it will increase pressures and problems for our allies in the EU.
2/ “… Earlier this month, CJCS” — the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — “said there’s only eight thousand trained (local) forces in Syria and we need 40 thousand to defeat ISIS. Where did POTUS get the information to make this decision?”
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) December 19, 2018
We have not, no matter what the President has said, defeated ISIS. While it is true that ISIS has lost its physical holdings – the self declared caliphate – this actually makes them more dangerous, not less. They are no longer required to try to hold their territorial gains, nor are they required to provide the functions of a state within the self declared caliphate. As a result they have actually been liberated to focus on a low intensity irregular and asymmetric war to achieve their objective: the spread and imposition of their extreme understanding of tawheed/the radical unity of the Deity on their fellow Muslims. This includes forcefully and, if necessary, violently cracking down on what they define as innovation in Islam/Islamic practice (bidda), unbelief (kufr), apostasy (ridda), and polytheism (shirk). Freed of having to create and administer a state – the self declared caliphate – ISIS has been freed up to actually become more dangerous and more lethal. ISIS fighters are now free to go anywhere and fight everywhere. Destroying the physical caliphate, while an important step in reducing ISIS and its ability to do harm within and without the Levant, is not itself a defeat of ISIS. And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, it actually increases ISIS’s lethality within and without the Levant in the short term. This is not something that US policymakers, as well as the senior military and civilian leaders tasked with reducing ISIS were unaware of. As is always the case when pursuing strategic objectives, achieving one creates new problems that require new, or at least adjusted, strategies to resolve.
Our withdrawal, especially an immediate one, also creates openings for the regional powers that have been using the Syrian Civil War as a proxy war to achieve their own regional objectives. The Syrian Civil War, of which the fight against ISIS is only one facet, has been facilitated and worsened because the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks have all used the civil war itself, as well as the proxies they are funding and supporting within it, to try to become the regional hegemon. These three regional powers are largely pursuing a religio-political hegemony.
The Saudis seek to establish themselves as the leaders of a Sunni Muslim Middle East, rooted in their state sanctioned form of Islam – Salafism. Salafism, meaning fundamentalism, is really tawheed – Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab’s doctrine of the radical unity of the Deity as the focus of Islam. The Iranians seek to consolidate and maintain the sphere of influence they have created in and through Iraq and Lebanon, both Twelver Shi’a majority states, and Syria, which is controlled by the Alawites a Shi’a offshoot that the Supreme Religious Authority in Iran has declared is actually Shi’a. Erdogan in Turkey seeks to return the Turks to their historic role of influencing and dominating the Middle East, the trans-Caucusus, and Central Asia as the East/West and North/South gateway in the region.
The Israelis are also trying to manipulate the Syrian Civil War to create and achieve their long standing goal of creating strategic depth between themselves and the Iranians. Which is why Netanyahu has been dealing directly with Putin in regard to just how far Iranian regular and irregular forces are allowed to proceed in Syria. This deal between Netanyahu and Putin also appears to be why the President ordered a partial withdrawal of US military and civilian personnel who were supporting rebel groups and helping to provide local stability in Syria near the Israeli border earlier this year.
Finally, Russia has its own interests in Syria. They need to maintain their warm water port at Latakia. But they also need the Syrian Civil War, as well as the threat posed by ISIS, for as long as possible. Putin’s strategic objective here is to keep the Levant unstable for as long as possible in order to maximize refugee flows into Europe and thereby provide the nationalist and neo-fascist movements, political parties, and politicians he’s supporting with an ongoing divisive issue in his ongoing attempt to exacerbate domestic political issues within Europe in order to rip apart the European Union and NATO.
Senior GOP Nat-Sec official on Syria troop withdrawal: "This is the Trump foreign policy everyone feared: rash geopolitical decisions with little benefit for U.S. security… will only incentivize more aggressive behavior from countries like Russia and China."
— Eli Stokols (@EliStokols) December 19, 2018
If the President’s announcement of an immediate withdrawal was part of a well developed strategy to achieve the US’s policy objectives of defeating ISIS and stabilizing the Levant, then I would be very supportive. We shouldn’t have personnel deployed where despite their tactical successes, they are unable to achieve the larger US and allied strategic objectives. This dynamic has been the case in Afghanistan for years, which is why the best thing that can happen in the Afghan theater of operations is a negotiated settlement and a withdrawal of almost all US military personnel. Any ongoing mission in Afghanistan, provided the Afghans would be interested, should be all about political and economic development, which can be accomplished a lot more effectively by civilian subject matter experts from the civilian agencies of the US government and our coalition partners and allies. This, however, is not the case in Syria. ISIS is not defeated and, if anything, is even more dangerous as it is now freed from having to defend actual physical territory. And the Syrian Civil War is still ongoing and destabilizing the Levant as well as Europe. The limited/light footprint train, advise, and assist strategy we are currently pursuing still has merit. It should not be abandoned on a whim.