America's Absence Could Be Syria's New Nightmare


Jan 10, 2019

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018

Photo by Rodi Said/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on January 10, 2019.

President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria reverses his administration's recent policy of retaining them as long as Iranian troops stay. Absent a major stake in Syria, America might shy away from a leading role in international efforts to achieve a negotiated political settlement, perhaps dooming prospects for one. Continued instability in Syria may favor Iran's long-term interests there but perhaps not Russia's.

Making good on an earlier pledge, President Trump tweeted in mid-December, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.” While the announcement took allies and many in Congress by surprise, most expected a U.S. pullout someday.

The U.S. presence in Syria is modest, with only some 2,200 U.S. special forces, whose role is to advise and support much larger numbers of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters. This coalition has brought stunning success. In 2014, the Islamic State controlled over thirty-four-thousand square miles in Syria and Iraq, with eight million people subjected to brutal rule. Today its control over territory is vanishing—Islamic State fighters remain holed up the Hajin pocket and other small towns and villages along the Central Euphrates River Valley—currently less than 1 percent of what the caliphate held at its peak. Many armed insurgents will fight on, but probably not in organized formations on the battlefield, unless U.S. withdrawal prompts an Islamic State resurgence in Syria.

Last week, UN-led talks on a political settlement in Syria once again failed . Iranian, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers, meeting with the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, failed to make progress on a way to reform Syria's constitution and usher in new elections. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is strongly resisting this process and so far, at least, Moscow has failed to compel him to accept it. Negotiations in this narrow format may have reached a dead end.

This is nothing new. A few years ago, Assad refused to implement multiple ceasefires negotiated by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, while a meek and chastened Kremlin stood aside.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Colin Clarke is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and an adjunct senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and a U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.