The 2,000-some US military service-members in Syria have been ordered by President Trump to leave the country within 100 days. All US State Department personnel there have been given 24 hours to evacuate. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” the president said in a tweet. Is Trump right? Has the Islamic State in Syria been defeated?
Even more important a question perhaps is, does it matter?
First, ISIS has in fact been decimated in Syria. They’re not gone, but the territory controlled by ISIS is a fraction of what it was and their administrative infrastructure has been severely hobbled. Not only have the American military and her regional allies been pummeling ISIS for years so have the Russians, Turks, and of course, the Syrian government itself. It may just be noteworthy that Russia only yesterday announced that they’re drastically scaling back offensive operations in Syria, going from more than 100 military flights a day to just 4 per week.
ISIS is not out of Syria though. That small sliver of Northern Syria is still under their control and the Pentagon says that as many as 17,000 ISIS fighters remain, with another 13,000 or so in Iraq. It should be noted that this is roughly the same amount as at the group’s peak in 2014. So while they have lost territory, ISIS is not toothless and retains a significant fighting force spread through tendrilous support networks across much of Iraq and Syria.
While ISIS’ ability to wage war and export terrorism has been tremendously compromised they are not vanquished. So the president gets a “well, kind of” for saying that ISIS has been defeated. Now, does it even matter?
The fighting in Syria has never been strictly about ISIS, for all parties involved. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president since 2000, just wants to quash any and all threats to his power — ISIS is only one of multiple insurgent groups in the Syrian Civil War. Turkey is much more interested in stopping the YPG, a Kurdish militia group that controls much of Northern Syria, and last week President Erdogan announced that they’re launching a new operation in that region to clear the Kurds out.
It is possible that we’re heading out in part due to this new Turkish offensive. Over the years, US forces have been working closely with Kurdish forces in Syria, to great effect. “It has cost them [the Kurds] thousands of casualties, but you have watched them, with the coalition support, shred ISIS’ caliphate in Syria,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in January.
The relationship between Turkey and the US has been fraught recently. A situation not soothed by the occasional friendly fire on US-backed Kurdish fighters, as well as US troops themselves, in YPG-controlled Northern Syria, right on the Turkish border. As far as the Turks are concerned, there is precious little difference between ISIS or the YPG on their doorstep.
Keeping the peace between our two allies, the Turks and the Kurds, in the region has long been a significant side-mission of our troops there. So why pull out?
The Trump administration has long held that one of the main purposes of our presence in Syria is to force an Iranian withdrawal from the equation. Iran has been funding and arming pro-Assad units for years, which would seem to make drawing down US forces from the country a strange decision. However, Iran needs and wants a stable Syria in order to maintain their influence — allowing Turkey to attack and contain Northern Syria will most likely keep Syria fractured and Iran’s importance there limited, a situation welcomed by the US and our allies, especially Israel. All while we ostensibly don’t risk anything.
Russia’s importance in the area will probably also be restrained by a prolonged Turkish military presence in Syria. It is not unlikely that President Putin will put forth little effort in maintaining an alliance with a destitute and destroyed Syria.
There is a danger in encouraging chaos in Syria. ISIS is not dead and they have proven adept at thriving in anarchy. A weak Syria could easily end up an incubator for terrorism again and ISIS reemerge as a threat once again. But a threat to whom?
For my part, I echo the sentiments of Thomas Mockaitis, a professor at DePaul University and consultant for the Center for Civil-Military Relations at the Naval Postgraduate School, who said “Terrorism is a persistent nuisance, a problem, but not an existential threat.” Our response to terrorism in the 21st century has been wildly out of proportion to the threat and we’ve been way over-dependent on military solutions.
There is a real argument to be made that America’s open-ended and ill-defined wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the interventions in places like Libya and Syria over the last 17 years have encouraged the growth and proliferation of violent groups like ISIS. Getting out while we only have 2000 troops may indeed be the smarter move but only time will tell.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan Press, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events, Times of Israel, Dialogue & Discourse. Argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.