President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday hailed the decision by President Trump to withdraw United States forces from Syria, calling it “correct” because the American troops were not needed.
Mr. Putin’s praise came a day after Mr. Trump said he was ordering the withdrawal because the United States military had achieved its goal of defeating the Islamic State militant group in Syria. Given the unfinished business on the ground in Syria, however, the move was a surprise to many, including some senior presidential military and diplomatic advisers in Washington.
The decision has been criticized, even among Republicans, as abandoning Kurdish allies in the face of a hostile Turkey and a still dangerous Islamic State, as well as leaving Syria open territory for the geopolitical ambitions of Russia and Iran. [Continue reading…]
ISIS is not defeated in Syria. It controls territory, retains significant fighting forces and is reconstituting those forces. ISW’s assessment of the #ISIS footprint in #Syria/#Iraq as of last month (update to follow): pic.twitter.com/m5APjB13PF
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) December 19, 2018
Trump’s claim that ISIS has been defeated is inaccurate. ISIS continues to hold a small but critical pocket of land consisting of a handful of towns along the Euphrates River and the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The campaign to expel the militants from their last stronghold is expected to take a month or two—although the announcement could mean a more aggressive effort that would increase civilian casualties.
Even after the defeat of ISIS in this pocket, the fight will hardly be won. The U.S.-led campaign created new dynamics on the ground, which only the U.S. can now address. For example, U.S. reliance on the Kurdish militia known as the YPG angered Turkey, which views it as an extension of the PKK, the insurgent group that it has been battling in-country for four decades. As the YPG expanded its influence during the fight against ISIS, Ankara shifted its priorities in Syria from backing the opposition in its fight against the regime to aligning with Russia to fight the Kurds.
The timing of Trump’s decision is especially destabilizing, because various parties in the conflict have positioned themselves to attack the areas under YPG control as the campaign against ISIS draws to a close. The end of the campaign means that the U.S. has to work harder, not the opposite, to ensure a peaceful settlement in eastern Syria. Such political support is a fundamental part of finishing the job against ISIS, and this cannot happen without the leverage Washington currently has by being present in Syria.
So far, the U.S.’s presence has prevented Turkey from clashing with the YPG in eastern Syria, as it did in northwestern Syria with Russian approval. Washington does not have the luxury to limit its goal to defeating ISIS militarily and then pulling out. If it simply leaves, new wars will almost certainly be reignited between Turkey and the YPG, the Arabs and the Kurds, and the opposition and the YPG. [Continue reading…]