The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
In his October 10 article, “An Exit Strategy for Syria,” Christopher Alkhoury argues that the United States has achieved its main objective in Syria—eliminating an Islamic State (also known as ISIS) safe haven—and should therefore focus on negotiating a swift withdrawal from the country that both preserves U.S. access to Syrian airspace and protects the Syrian partners who fought alongside U.S. troops. At first blush, this argument seems sensible—after all, who wants another endless war? But Alkhoury quickly rebuts his own argument by citing the destabilizing effects of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, an event that sent shock waves through the international system even though the U.S.-led campaign was failing and Washington had few strategic interests there. In Syria, by contrast, the U.S. approach is succeeding, if modestly, and U.S. strategic interests abound. An Afghanistan-style withdrawal from Syria would generate an even more destabilizing shock, one that would make the chaos that accompanied U.S. President Donald Trump’s brief call to pull U.S. troops out of Syria in 2019 look mild by comparison.
But the problems with Alkhoury’s proposal run far deeper than the Afghan analogy. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not won the war in Syria, as Alkhoury asserted. Nor did the Trump administration freeze Syrian humanitarian funding, as Alkhoury’s piece claimed when it was originally published (it halted and then partially reinstituted a smaller stabilization program). More important than these errors of judgment and fact is the reality that withdrawing from Syria would endanger regional interests of the United States and of the international community. That is why the Trump administration rejected an approach similar to Alkhoury’s in 2018, a decision that subsequent events have vindicated.
The core result of Alkhoury’s proposal, although he wisely tries to play it down, would be to give the Russians greater diplomatic and military bandwidth to increase their pressure on Turkey and Israel to withdraw from Syria as well. That would eventually leave all of Syria under the control of Assad, who instigated the war, and hand Russia and Iran a strategic victory. The United States would be transforming a relatively effective in-country operation that has just 900 soldiers—none of whom have been killed in almost four years—into an offshore effort against ISIS, presumably in coordination with the tyrant responsible for 650,000 deaths and the displacement of half his country’s population.
Assad’s efforts against ISIS are feckless. Moreover, military leaders at U.S. Central Command have publicly stressed the need for a U.S. footprint in Syria, not out-of-country bases, to suppress ISIS. Yes, Alkhoury is correct that Iranian-backed militias attack U.S. positions in Syria—just as they do in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. But retreat encourages, rather than deters, Tehran.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not won the war in Syria.
In 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected a similar proposal to partially withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and focus only on fighting ISIS. He concluded that such an approach would not help resolve the underlying civil war on the basis of the political compromise his predecessor, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, had hammered out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which called for a cease-fire and a Syrian-led political transition, including negotiations with the opposition for a new constitution. Nor would a U.S. withdrawal address the plight of 12 million displaced Syrians and refugees who in the absence of a political settlement would reasonably fear retribution from Assad. Furthermore, a U.S. withdrawal would not address Iran’s increasing influence within Syrian institutions and its stationing of missile systems in Syria that threaten Israel. The fight against ISIS, Turkey’s various security concerns, and the fate of U.S. Kurdish partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), would also remain pressing challenges for the United States and its partners.
Consequently, the Trump administration built on Kerry’s efforts by coordinating U.S., Turkish, and Israeli military operations to freeze the conflict and deny Assad victory. (Half of Syria’s population and 30 percent of its territory, including much of its arable land and most of its hydrocarbon resources, are still beyond his control.) The United States also attempted to negotiate a comprehensive solution with Russia in 2019 on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. And although Moscow showed little interest in the negotiations, the freeze still worked. With the exception of minor gains in early 2020, Assad’s forces have won no additional territory, and the fighting has been minimal. After an initial hesitation, the Biden administration adopted a similar approach to the conflict in Syria.
The decision to stay in 2018 was risky; U.S. soldiers were in danger, Turkey was adamantly opposed to U.S. cooperation with the SDF, and new Assad offensives loomed. But despite the Turkish incursion into SDF areas in 2019—which prompted Trump’s brief call to withdraw—and an Assad-Russian offensive in 2020 against Turkish and opposition forces in northwestern Syria, the containment objective has held.
The relative success of this strategy has only become more evident in the past four years, as the cease-fires have held and several attempts by Arab states to reduce Assad’s isolation have garnered no real response from Damascus. More important, in an era of increasing geostrategic competition, including with Russia and Iran, the United States must avoid giving away unnecessary strategic victories. The Syrian freeze might not be pretty, but it is likely what limited victory will look like going forward in Syria and perhaps elsewhere.