Trump Orders Sudden Withdrawal From Syria Which Could Result In A Huge Power Vacuum (Updated)

President Donald Trump has ordered the U.S. military to begin planning to withdraw entirely from Syria in the near term, which would be a major reversal in his administration’s stated policy for the country. The decision comes on the heels of U.S.-backed forces ejecting ISIS terrorists from their last major physical stronghold in the Syrian town of Hajjin. But a complete American departure from the country would almost certainly give the terrorists room to regroup and create a power vacuum beneficial to the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies, as well as Turkey. A rush to exploit a chaotic situation could provoke a new set of conflicts.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report the new developments, on Dec. 19, 2018, with various other outlets

quickly following suit, all citing anonymous sources. The White House subsequently confirmed publicly that the United States was looking to pull military personnel specifically out of Syria, a move that the Pentagon reportedly opposes, but offered no further details or schedule.

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States had defeated the territorial caliphate,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement on Dec. 12, 2019. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamic terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump himself had Tweeted out earlier in the day. The president has argued in the past for pulling American forces out of Syria, as well as potentially replacing them with another foreign force, including one with Saudi Arabia in the lead.

Sanders and Trump both appeared to be referring to the announcement on Dec. 14, 2018, from the U.S. backed, predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it had taken control of Hajjin, seen as the last remnant of ISIS’ actual “Islamic State.” It would also seem that Trump is now seeking a total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as soon as possible. 

However, Sanders statement suggested this may not be the case, at least initially, referring to a “next phase of this campaign.” Dana White, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson echoed Sanders’ language, but also did not elaborate on the scope of the withdrawal and seemed to backpedal on the prospect of any imminent moves, reaffirming that “the campaign against ISIS is not over.”

The United States officially has approximately 2,000 troops in the country, with the majority of them in the northeastern corner situated between Turkey and Iraq. A smaller number operate out of an outpost in the south near the city of At Tanf along the Jordanian border. These troops, along with other coalition partners, support around 8,000 local fighters, the bulk of whom belong to the SDF.

There is also no information so far on how Trump’s decision might impact other interagency components in the country, including elements of the Intelligence Community, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or the activities of any of the more than 70 members of the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS. The State Department leads little-reported U.S.-led transition, reconstruction, and humanitarian aid efforts through the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team (START) in Turkey and the Southern Syria Assistance Platform (SSAP) in Jordan.

A map offering details about various locations of interest in Syria as of the middle of 2018., DOD
A map that Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency media outlet released in 2017 showing the locations of various American forward operating bases in northeastern Syria., Anadolu Agency

There is a START Forward office within northeastern Syria proper that conducts field activities and coordinates foreign assistance and aid in areas U.S.-backed forces have liberated from ISIS in cooperation with military personnel. The United States has also supported the establishment of local governments and security forces in these same areas, notably in the strategic towns of Manbij and Raqqa, the future of which would uncertain in the absence of an American military presence. The Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies decry these entities as illegal parallel authorities.

As with the SDF, these local councils and security elements are also predominantly made up of ethnic Kurds. This has drawn the ire of Turkey, who views these groups as inseparable from terrorists it sees as a direct threat to its own national interests. Separate from the fight against ISIS, the United States does actively support Turkey’s counter-terrorism campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which both countries had designated as a terrorist group.

Members of the US-supported Raqqa Internal Security Force conduct a training exercise., US Army

But in January 2018, Turkish forces launched a major intervention into northwestern Syria with the goal of routing Kurdish militants. Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly criticized U.S. government support for Kurdish groups and has threatened to have his troops fight their way through their ostensible American allies if necessary to crush those fighters. On Dec. 14, 2018, the Turkish president warned, yet again, of a new offensive into northeastern Syria was imminent, though, at the time, the U.S. military said there had been no change in its force posture in the region.

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria did reportedly come in the wake of a series of calls with Erdoğan, who has long pressed for the United States to at least abandon its support of the SDF and instead rely on the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), a group of ethnic Syrian Turkmen and Arab fighters. But there’s no indication that the Turkish president had to actually sway his American counterpart’s opinion on whether or not to remain engaged in Syria. The Trump administration has already successively curtailed support for other non-SDF groups, or so-called “Vetted Syrian Opposition,” or VSO, since 2017.

Turkish forces distribute aid to civilians in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria in 2018. Turkey and its local partners are accused of killing numerous civilians as they drove Kurdish forces from the region., Turkish MND

There is, of course, no guarantee that the withdrawal plan will proceed in the way Trump desires right now, or at all. Just this week, various U.S. government offices and officials, including Ambassador Jim Jeffery, the United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement, have made it clear that the United States expects to remain in Syria indefinitely. Trump’s new announcement runs counter to with the otherwise well-established publicly stated U.S. policy on the matter. Though he certainly has the authority to order the withdrawal as commander in chief, the president has had to back away from multiple previous attempts to force significant policy shifts in the face of fervent opposition from within the U.S. government in the past.

“I’m not at all complacent about the work that remains to be done,” U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Dec. 6, 2018. “I would say we’re well along in clearing ISIS from the ground that they’ve held in Syria and we still have a lot of work to do in terms of the stabilization phase.”

“I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring,” Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, explained during a press conference, on Dec. 11, 2018. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, among others, has reportedly spent days trying to convince Trump not to go through with a full withdrawal with the situation on the ground still so fluid. 

It should go without saying that ISIS loss of physical territory does not mean that the group is defeated as Trump has claimed. U.S. officials, as well as experts and observers, including us here at The War Zone, have highlighted how a rapid withdrawal of American personnel from Syria could easily provide the space need for the terrorists to regroup and craft a newly threatening “ISIS 2.0.”

Splinter groups pose their own threat, with one such group called The White Flag, made up of former ISIS terrorists and Kurdish militants, emerging in the wake of an Iraqi crackdown on the Kurds in 2017. ISIS itself is simply the latest incarnation of what began in 2004 as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

General Dunford said earlier in December 2018 that it would take approximately 40,000 local forces, more than four times the number the United States has trained and supports now, to adequately prevent ISIS from re-emerging as the major, regional threat it had become in 2014. It continues to be true that the U.S.-led coalition is the only force in the region actually focused on fighting ISIS primarily and that has the adequate resources in terms of vital air, artillery, and persistent intelligence gathering capabilities to keep up the pressure on that terrorist group. Between Dec. 9 and 15, 2018, predominantly American forces conducted more than 200 air and artillery strikes against targets in Syria.

Though it is reasonable to debate whether it is legal or appropriate under present mandates from Congress, the presence of American troops in northeastern Syria especially has come to represent a not insignificant check against myriad agendas of the various different actors in the country. Without those U.S. forces there, Turkey would have free reign to expand its campaign against Kurdish fighters, including the SDF, which has been, by far, the most effective local force in the fight against ISIS. Abandoning the Kurds, who have fought and died alongside U.S. troops for years now, could make it difficult to call upon them in the future.

A joint US-Turkish patrol near the city of Manbij, one of many United States initiatives to try to maintain a buffer between Turkey and US-backed Kurdish groups., US Army

The Turkish campaign has already prompted Kurdish groups outside of the SDF to appeal to other actors, including Assad, for support, planting the seeds for a new multi-faceted and potentially destabilizing conflict. Turkey has historically opposed Assad, though it grew closer to Russia as its relations with the United States cooled after a failed coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016. More recently, tensions between Ankara and the Kremlin have also flared over Turkey’s own growing occupation of northwestern Syria. There remains a decided risk that pro-Assad groups and Turkish-backed fighters could come to blows, drawing their respective allies closer to a direct confrontation. 

Without Americans on the ground, there would also be no reason for Assad, with the help of his Russian and Iranian benefactors, not to push to reassert control over the entire country. As it stands now, American-backed forces occupy around a third of Syria. Assad and his allies will almost certainly claim they “forced” the Americans out, giving them a major propaganda win and validating of their brutal tactics, to include the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, which have enabled the dictator to remain in power after years of civil war.

“Hope emerges that this location on the Syrian map will follow the example of Aleppo and other Syrian towns and villages which begin getting back to peaceful life,” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Maria Zakharova declared in response to Trump’s announcement. “Once Americans were there, there was no such hope.”

It would also help stabilize Russia’s presence in the country, as well as that of Iran. The United States and Israel both have publicly said they will not tolerate Iranian forces establishing a firmer foothold in Syria, which they say only enables the regime in Tehran to more directly support other terrorist and militant groups in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has already been pursuing an active campaign against Iranian-linked militias and interests in Syria. Iranian forces flooding into the vacuum provided by the departure of the U.S. military from Syria could easily prompt Israel to respond with its own escalation. A bizarre incident in September 2018, in which Syrian air defense forces accidentally shot down a Russian Il-20 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance plane while ostensibly trying to shoot down Israeli F-16 fighter jets only serves to highlight how much an escalation in fighting between one or two groups in Syria runs the risk of easily drawing in other actors and creating a larger conflict.

An Israeli F-16I Sufa fighter jet, a type that has been a major contributor to strikes in Syria., IAF

A unilateral withdrawal would also simply weaken the U.S. government’s position and influence in the region. Such a move risks sending the signal to allies and opponents both that the United States is an unreliable partner and ineffective guarantor in any future negotiations about the future of Syria or the settling of other regional conflicts. This could have a cascading impact more broadly, limiting the ability of the Trump Administration, or its successors, to seek concessions and other terms that are in its interests in future peace deals and other international agreements.

With so few details about Trump’s withdrawal decision at present, and the U.S. military reportedly only now in the process of crafting possible options, it is very likely that the exact nature of the plan will continue to evolve in the immediate future. The administration could also face opposition from Congress, with South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has become a vocal Trump supporter, taking to Twitter to argue that pulling out of Syria would be “an Obama-like mistake” – a turn of phrase referring to former President Barack Obama that seems specifically geared toward the current president’s political and personal sensitivities.

That’s not to say U.S. policy toward Syria or ISIS has been stable or clear beforehand. The Iraqi demand for U.S. forces to leave that country, which George W. Bush signed right before turning things over to Obama, was a major contributing factor to the rise of the terrorist group as a regional threat. Obama’s own self-imposed assertion that Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” and his failure to act decisively when it became clear the Syrian regime was not abiding by international agreements, similarly took a toll on U.S. credibility with regards to the conflict in Syria as a whole.

So it’s not surprising that other legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, have offered their support to Trump’s decision ostensibly on anti-interventionist grounds. Many lawmakers have long opposed what they see as “mission creep” in Syria, from defeating ISIS to broader involvement in the Syrian civil war, without any clear strategy or legal authority. 

It’s too soon to know for sure how any withdrawal of American forces from Syria might play out in the long run, but what seems clear is that it would weaken the U.S. government’s position in the region and give breathing room to terrorists and other malign actors, which threatens to touch off all-new crises. The number of conflicting and contradictory statements from the different arms of the U.S. government are already injecting worrying uncertainty and instability into what has always been a complex conflict in Syria.

Update: 7:10pm EST—

Reuters has reported, citing unnamed officials again, that all State Department personnel will depart Syria within 24 hours and that the full withdrawal will be complete within 60 to 100 days. Earlier reports had indicated the U.S. military was still developing its plans for how to withdraw and it remains unclear whether these initial changes to the American posture in Syria will proceed as planned.

In addition, at an official White House briefing later on Dec. 19, 2018, the Trump administration could offer no specific details about the timeline for any withdrawal on the record. They referred reporters to the Pentagon, who, in turn, referred them back to the White House.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.