Staying entangled in Syria’s civil war was a mistake—full U.S. military withdrawal remains the right policy

October 7, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC—On Monday morning, the White House announced it is pulling back U.S. troops from northern Syria in anticipation of a Turkish military campaign against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin H. Friedman issued the following statement in response:

“The U.S. military should be quickly withdrawn from Syria—in fact, it should have entirely left already. But that does not mean U.S. forces should move south immediately, clearing a path for Turkey to attack the Kurds. Rather than false hope, Washington should have sent clear messages to the Kurds warning them of a U.S. withdrawal to arrange their circumstances.

“The problem is not the goal of swift U.S. withdrawal, contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington. The problem is the muddled national security process that failed to remove U.S. forces after the complete defeat of the ISIS caliphate.

“Following the liberation of ISIS-held territory, the U.S. had no remaining national interests in Syria. Since the president announced U.S. withdrawal from Syria in December 2018, U.S. policies have suggested we are staying. U.S. troops, now apparently down to 1,000 were somehow supposed to expel Iran, hold back Syrian government forces, protect the Kurds from Turkey, and start reconstructing Syria.

“Those ambitious and unnecessary goals would have been impossible for even a far larger force. The mismatch of ends and means has left the U.S. with no good options. Instead of shifting forces south, the U.S. should announce the onset of a disciplined withdrawal of all forces. That means the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, not just a reshuffling.

“The notion of a joint U.S.-Turkish safe zone in northern Syria was always unrealistic. It discouraged the Kurds from reconciling with the Syrian government, which is the only local fighting force capable of protecting the Kurds from Turkey in the long term. A potential compromise would be a return to the pre-civil war status quo ante: hand responsibility for border security to the Syrian government while also bringing Syria’s Kurds under its authority, thus disarming Turkish fears of an independent Kurdish state on its border. The Kurds would have to give up autonomy, but would be allowed to keep their militias for self-defense.

“Advocates of an indefinite U.S. military presence in Syria are outraged by the announced pullback, but the U.S. cannot guarantee the safety of the Kurds short of war with Turkey. The interests of the Kurds should not take precedence over U.S. interests—which call for a speedy disentanglement from the Syrian conflict—nor be used as a pretext to keep troops in Syria forever.”

Defense Priorities explainer: Disentangling from Syria's civil war