A Free Syrian Army fighter in the town of Tadef, Syria, February 2018
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

A U.S.-led military coalition succeeded in toppling the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State, known as ISIS, in Iraq and Syria just this past March. Remarkably, only around 2,000 U.S. troops took part in this effort, a tiny fraction of those deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at the heights of those wars. The key to success in Syria was that the United States worked “by, with, and through” local militia forces, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone was the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

And yet, with a single call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly greenlit a Turkish assault on those same Kurdish partners, whose close ties to Kurdish militants in Turkey had long unnerved Ankara.

Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops that had been training and assisting the SDF as part

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  • BRIAN KATZ is a Fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, he served as Country Director for Syria in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as a military analyst focused on the Middle East at the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • MICHAEL CARPENTER is Managing Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 2015 to 2017.
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