The Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria

On December 19, President Trump declared on Twitter: “We have defeated [the Islamic State group] in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The White House then confirmed that U.S. troops are leaving Syria immediately and will be completely gone within 30 days. U.S. officials said all State Department personnel would leave within 24 hours, and NGO staff working on stabilization are also reportedly being evacuated.

Q1: Why did this happen now?

A1: President Trump campaigned on withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and renewed his calls to “get out of Syria” in April 2018. His national security team has consistently—and until now, successfully—persuaded him that a precipitous withdrawal would be a mistake. Several officials have cautioned that a sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops would help the Islamic State group (ISG) resurrect itself. John Bolton, the national security adviser, pledged three months ago that U.S. troops would remain in Syria as long as Iran has a military presence there.

Numerous reports suggest that his most senior officials were taken by surprise, and the U.S. military had less than 24 hours’ notice. Secretary Mattis refused to answer questions about the U.S. withdrawal to the media, and the Pentagon released a statement refuting the president’s claim that the ISG had been defeated. The State Department abruptly canceled its scheduled press briefing.

The decision fits into a pattern of moves taken by the Trump administration to appease Turkey, which objects to the United States arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces that have been fighting the ISG in eastern Syria, but which also have links to the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey. Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened an imminent Turkish incursion into Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria, which would have put U.S. troops at risk. Turkey, a NATO ally, also had been flirting with the idea of buying an S-400 Russian missile defense system rather than the U.S.-built Patriot system. Following President Trump’s phone call with Turkey on Friday, Turkey agreed to buy the U.S. system for $3.5 billion. In addition, the White House confirmed that President Trump is considering extraditing the Turkish dissident religious leader Fethullah Gulen.

Q2: Who wins? Who loses?

A2: The clearest winners are Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as the Assad government. Russia has been a big winner in Syria, where the commitment of 5,000 troops and a few dozen fixed-wing aircraft have saved the regime, dealt a blow to Islamist groups with links to Chechnya, secured its only naval and air bases in the Mediterranean, given battlefield experience to its troops, and re-established Russia as a military force for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops means that the Russians will decide on their military future in Syria with the Syrian government alone, and without meaningful U.S. input. Iran, too, is a big winner, as the U.S. withdrawal helps consolidate Iran’s ground links between Iran and its allies in Lebanon and gives Iran an unobstructed path to retaining a significant military and intelligence presence in Syria. Turkey seems to have gotten everything it wanted—advanced weapons systems, a decisive voice in Syria’s future, and a clear path to attack Kurdish forces—while giving up very little. Of course, the Assad government will be able to expand its control over the entire country, including the oil-rich areas that had been hosting U.S. troops, and have an unconstrained hand re-imposing its jurisdiction.

Israel is among the most important losers, as Israel had been deeply concerned at the permanent presence of Iranian forces across the border. The Kurds who had allied with the United States to fight the ISG are big losers as well. For U.S. allies such as Jordan and Lebanon, the evisceration of U.S. leverage in negotiations over Syria’s future—where many important decisions will be made, yet few have yet been made—could have devastating consequences.

Q3: What does this mean for U.S. policy in Syria?

A3: Trump administration officials appear to have abandoned all three articulated aims for the U.S. presence in Syria: an enduring defeat of the ISG, the removal of Iranian forces and its proxies from Syria, and an irreversible political transition.

Throughout the Syria conflict, the United States has been working with Syrians and outside parties to negotiate Syria’s political future. In recent years, parallel processes led by Russia have arisen and seem to have overtaken the U.S.-sponsored talks. With the precipitate U.S. withdrawal from Syria, the U.S. position in any negotiations over Syria’s future has been inestimably weakened. Perhaps most puzzling, U.S. adversaries have sacrificed nothing to obtain that outcome.

Q4: What is next for eastern Syria?

A4: There are two likely scenarios for eastern Syria. The first would be a Turkish invasion, as President Erdogan considers the U.S. withdrawal to be a green light to launch the offensive he has threatened. Turkey would then add the area to the east of the Euphrates to the territory it controls in northern Syria, where its presence is entrenched. The Kurdish forces, the YPG, is estimated at somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 troops. A Turkish offensive will likely lead to a high death toll among those troops and their families, devastating one of the few regions of Syria that has been spared the worst of the fighting. Conflict would also trigger new waves of migration, further threatening stabilization efforts in Syrian and Iraqi territory which are vulnerable to the ISG.

The second scenario would see the YPG and their political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), successfully negotiate a return of the Assad regime’s control over the region. This is certainly the strategy they will attempt, but with such a clear signal that the United States has abandoned them, they have lost their main source of leverage. The prospects for maintaining any serious degree of autonomy have shrunk considerably. A return of regime control would restore Assad’s control over Syria’s oil resources and further consolidate his grip over the country.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Will Todman is an associate fellow in the CSIS Middle East Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program
Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program