U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria is a mistake. But if he insists on going ahead with it, the best option for the United States is to do what it can to ensure that Moscow—not Ankara or Tehran—ultimately replaces it and negotiates a political settlement that prevents a new conflict in eastern Syria. The two of us have long argued for greater U.S. engagement in Syria, so we find this approach unpleasant. But given Trump’s decision, it is the best way to avert further conflict, prevent the Islamic State (ISIS) from reemerging, and limit Iran’s influence in eastern Syria.
THE RISKS OF RETREAT
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from eastern Syria has the potential to create a security vacuum in which ISIS could regenerate, especially if fighting flares up again. The United States will be abandoning its best local partner in the campaign against ISIS: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which U.S. commanders expected would stabilize eastern Syria after ISIS’ defeat. Iran will likely take the opportunity to shore up its supply lines across the Levant and reinforce the missile stockpiles it is building in western Syria. By walking away from a region that makes up nearly one-third of the country, including some of its most important electricity-producing resources and its most significant water, oil, and wheat reserves, the United States will be giving up its biggest piece of leverage in any negotiation over the final disposition of the country.
Even if Trump changes his mind, or slows down the withdrawal, the damage to the U.S. position in Syria will have been done. The various regional actors, including the United States’ closest Arab partners, are already behaving as though the Americans have left. Given this reality, the only remaining question is how to best protect U.S. interests.
U.S. policymakers should focus on ensuring a peaceful transition in eastern Syria. If the withdrawal leads to renewed conflict between Turkey
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