US troops withdrawal from Syria and the threat of Islamic State

US troops withdrawal from Syria and the threat of Islamic State

President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria has infuriated allies and strengthened adversaries on the ground. This has allowed Turkey to potentially eliminate a key Kurdish fighting force. This article assesses who stands to win and lose from this decision and the long-term impact for relations in the Middle East.

President Trump has decided to withdraw all US troops from Syria after claiming that IS has been ‘defeated.’ Increased US troops were maintained in the Middle East to face evolving and complex situations after the Arab Spring. However, this decision has remained contentious and it is unlikely that stability will prevail after the troops depart. In addition to Russia and Iran, the absence of American troops will also enhance Turkey’s ability to control the likely future of Syria. Turkey has maintained a presence in Syria with key strategic objectives against the Kurds in the northern region. A military operation is likely to be launched that could change the course of Syria’s political future.

The withdrawal of US troops also means that there will be no boots on the ground supporting the Kurdish forces, who are viewed as terrorists by the Turkish government. This places the security and governance of northern Syria at risk. Furthermore, Turkey’s actions could also have a lasting impact on the desire of Kurds in southeastern Turkey to pursue greater autonomy from Ankara.

Where does the Islamic State stand?

A recent report from the Institute for the Study of War stated the Islamic State is far from defeated. According to their assessment from November 2018, the Islamic State still controls territory, has significant fighting resources and is in the process of reconstituting those forces. It has not posed as great a threat to the West over the past year, however, with the only apparent IS-linked attack occurring in Strasbourg, France last week. That could change if IS have more room to operate and are able to regroup in the digital arena. This raises the potential for a renewed campaign of violence against the West.

The anti-Islamic State fight will arguably be much harder now, as the Russians do not view it as a strategic priority. President Erdogan of Turkey, for his part, has assured Trump that his military ‘will eradicate’ any remaining IS fighters in Syria, although Ankara’s Kurdish offensive is viewed as a higher priority. Syria’s Kurdish fighters have the most to lose. They will now be acting alone and are effectively sitting ducks against the next Islamic State or Turkish attack.

Trump, Mattis, and foreign policy

Additionally, Republicans in Congress have expressed concern about this move. Senator Lindsey Graham and others stated it could be a ‘huge Obama-like mistake’. The decision also goes against the wishes of Trump’s national security team. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, seen as a bulwark against Trump’s more erratic foreign policy decisions, has resigned in protest over the move. Previously, Mattis opposed the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, saying it would raise security concerns. Mattis also opposed the choice of John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser, owing to the fact that it would worry allies in NATO and beyond.

The construction of alliances and the defeat of ideology in a war-torn country like Syria requires significant manpower. General Mattis was unable to explain to his counterparts in NATO, as well as in the Middle East why President Trump’s decision was the best course of action. The rift between Mattis and Trump raises concerns about instability in the American foreign policy. NATO members may now face renewed terror attacks as ISIS regroups and targets Western cities. The Syrian Kurdish fighters will no longer have a close ally on the ground. Furthermore, Iraq will have greater Russian and Iranian influence in its neighbourhood.

The beneficiaries

At the moment, the most likely winners of a US withdrawal from Syria include Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Together they form the ‘Astana Group’. They will now have more room to conduct operations inside Syria that will help bolster the Assad regime and reinforce their ports in Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean. Russia is also keen to maintain its image as a force to be reckoned with in global politics. This is particularly true for the Middle East, which has long seen US invasions and influence campaigns that Moscow views as violations of international law.

Further, ISIS will also benefit from a lack of US troops. It will try to find ways to reinvigorate a campaign against the West both on the battlefield as well as in the digital arena. The 2,000 troops on the ground helped to clear much of north-eastern Syria of ISIS. However, there are still large pockets of fighters. The goal of the mission has been to maintain a US presence to ensure that ISIS does not rebuild, launch terror attacks on the West, and further its grip on portions of Iraq and Syria. That mission has largely been successful. Most importantly, it gained the support of critical allies such as the Kurds, who are now left vulnerable.

President Vladimir Putin has praised the decision, while the US-backed Kurdish force has condemned the move. That divergence in opinion is a common theme for Donald Trump when it comes to foreign policy. Traditional allies are now alienated, while an autocratic state like Russia is emboldened due to the US withdrawal. This led to General Mattis resigning.

Future risks

Turkey will now be able to pursue its offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. These fighters previously assisted the US by leading the ground offensive to defeat the Islamic State. Ankara views these Kurdish forces as terrorists, similar to the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party in southeast Turkey. These groups have been seeking greater autonomy and waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. However, the US and NATO partners view them differently. They consider the Kurdish forces to be a vital component of any political solution to end the war in Syria.

The US will also abandon significant observation posts, initially recommended by Mattis, on the Turkish-Syrian border before all troops withdraw. After Mattis, it is likely that many of Trump’s advisers have little to no influence over his decision-making.

The Syrian civil war has been chaotic. It has taken time to craft an effective policy that tackles the numerous factors in play. This includes the Islamic State, the Assad regime, and Russia. It also involves not alienating Turkey and other critical forces who are willing to fight alongside the United States. In short, Syria has never been an easy problem to solve.

However, the withdrawal of US troops does not signal Syria’s move in a direction more inclined with American interests. Rather, Syria will now formally be under the protection of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. All three powers have completely different interests than those of the US. A potential rift in US-Saudi relations over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is possible. The Middle East is set to witness a significant rebalance in 2019. This will challenge US national security and the ability of Western powers to successfully further their interests through diplomacy.

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.