The US military base in Al Asaliyah village near Manbij, in northern Syria (above). After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. It was also said Trump had disregarded US allies and friends in Syria. In truth, the decision was well-mulled over by US decision makers. Far more factors were part of the decision than the short-list reported in the US news media.
There was a storm of disagreement, and in some foreign policy circles in Washington, outrage, following the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria. Fault with the decision was supported by the claim that Trump was acting against the best advice of his top military commanders and other foreign and national security officials. It was also said that Trump was displaying a certain insouciance toward allies and friends on the ground in Syria, to include Kurdish Forces (the People’s Protection Units or YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab and Assyrian fighters, as well high numbers of YPG units). Additionally, it was widely surmised that Trump reached the decision to withdraw US troops from thin air, and hastily announced the decision at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. Some news media commentators even went as far as to claim that the decision signalled a new US isolationism and the beginning of a contraction under which certain US interests worldwide would be abandoned. In truth, the decision was thoroughly mulled over in a decision making meeting prior to being announced. Moreover, far more factors, in particular factors that tied to reality, were part of the decision, than the short-list reported in the news media. The aim here is to enumerate and examine, from an out of the box perspective, some of the likely considerations made by Trump and his aides and advisers prior to making the Syria decision public. Hopefully, the examination here will contribute in some way to the policy debate in the US on Syria.
The Syria situation was not a problem of Trump’s making. US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced, Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds. Along with the US, European and Middle Eastern countries, have invested troops and other resources in Syria in what has been a successful effort to destroy terrorist groups in particular.
The contradiction between the desire to continue the fight alongside allies and friends, (that resulted in what now appear to have been ill-advised promises by US officials that the US would remain in Syria), and the requirements of force protection and the need to respond to rapidly evolving geostrategic realities in the region, made the decision to withdraw undoubtedly agonizing. Trump, however, was not marginal about the matter. Some of Trump’s top advisers were very disappointed over where the final decision fell. A couple top officials, having determined that continuing to work in support of Trump’s choice would compromise their personal values, their consciences, resigned. Perhaps an effort to keep US allies and friends invested in Syria militarily or otherwise of the decision to withdraw, even in camera, was a missing step. However, the decision will not be judged right or wrong here. Homines enim cum rem destruere non possunt, iactationem eius incessunt. Ita si silenda feceris, factum ipsum, si laudanda non sileas, ipse culparis. (Such is the disposition of mankind, if they cannot blast an action, they will censure the parade of it; and whether you do what does not deserve to be taken notice of, or take notice yourself of what does, either way you incur reproach.)
The announced withdrawal of US military units from Syria came as a surprise when Trump first made it on Twitter and then with a public statement on the White House lawn. There was an immediate rush by critics and detractors of Trump to pure negatives on the decision such as calling it an abandonment of allies and friends in the field. Other observers, uncertain about the future of Syria and uncertain of the future course of the US in the region, joined in the chorus against the decision. As promises were made by US officials other than Trump to stand alongside and support allies and friends, did as much to convince many observers that the US commitment to Syria was essentially open-ended, the disappointment and harsh reactions were stronger when that belief was dashed. Yet, with an assessment made that the main mission of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and correlatively degrading their ability to act elsewhere, reaching toward its terminus, keeping US forces in the combat zones of Syria, keeping them in harm’s way, became questionable to Trump. All along, it was a calculated risk to deploy and allow US forces to operate in Syria. Having spent months crossing his fingers concerning the well-being of US troops there, Trump made the decision to withdraw. Although US troops, themselves, expect to be in harm’s way whenever they are deployed in combat zones overseas, value judgments must be made by the civilian leadership on the returns or benefits from such dangerous deployments. It would seem Trump determined that the return on the US investment of troops in Syria, no longer justified placing their lives at risk. In making this decision, Trump likely felt some satisfaction knowing that he has robbed potential adversaries of the freedom to include an attack on US forces in Syria in their calculus of how they might hurt the US in the region.
US troops deployed in Syria are among the best trained in the US armed forces. As expected, they accomplished a tremendous amount. Yet, although extremely effectual in their performance, the size of their deployment, 2600 troops, is lean relative to those deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Their numbers are also meager relative to the presence of potential adversaries in Syria. Expectations from those troops should not be placed too high. For those rightfully concerned with worldwide impressions of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces, there should be an awareness that the force of 2600 troops was too few to do too much on the ground anyway. Change in Syria in the interest of the US and in a way that reflects US values would mean: allowing for the return of refugees and displaced persons; the establishment of transparent democratic governance in some form at the local, provincial, and national levels in Syria; providing all people of Syria with residences, more than just temporary shelters; an adequate, regular supply of sustenance; a means to sustain the delivery of sustenance; sufficient sources of potable water; continuous power and electricity; a highway and road systems that will allow for freedom of movement; reconstruction bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, dams, parks, and waterways; schools for children; hospitals and health clinics; sanitation system; law enforcement at the local, provincial, and national level; a courts system; effectual employment bureaus, a secure banking system; the rebuilding of factories and other workplaces; an agribusiness development program; and, a multitude of other necessities that will support the development of a viable society. Given the size of the force, it would not be able to guarantee the top five items enumerated on this list, particularly the safety and security of Syrian returnees from the Assad regime and other potential adversaries. The Assad regime would invariably want all returnees to fold neatly under its cruel subjugation. There would also be the requirement of protecting the Syrian people from Islamic militant groups seeking to reestablish their Caliphate or some new Islamic State from which they could launch terrorist attacks globally.
There is a broader picture concerning US capabilities and capacity to conduct military-style operations. Wars can be fought even when formations of US troops are not present. Other less visible ways and means to support the Kurdish Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces can be provided by elements of the US intelligence community to include the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). Invariably, some US troops could be used covertly, in specialized technical role for those agencies. By integrating themselves among local military units, they can provide assistance in the form of supply, training, and guidance to local senior leaders, support special reconnaissance, aid local commanders with command and control of units, and engage in direct action when required. A few historical examples of the success of such operations include: CIA operations in Military Region 3 in South Vietnam; the employment of Special Forces Operational Detachments in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait; operations in support of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council during both Operation Sana and Operation Oluja during Bosnia War; and, CIA and DIA operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Arguably, engaging in a covert operation with paramilitary trained case officers, special activities operators, and special forces soldiers working in tandem with local troops may not be as effective as having US military units perform tasks, but it is a viable option when the decision has been made to no longer make formal use of the US military. On the particular matter of providing forward control for airstrikes to defend allies and friends against attacks, resources would exist among operatives of those agencies on ground to perform that task. Moreover, with concentrations of US troops no longer on the ground in Syria, US air assets and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, could pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would be possible. That retribution could take the form of a surprise military attack or an act of terrorism.
Many of the immediate impressions expressed about Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria ignored certain realities of the evolving situation in the Middle East. There is a broader picture of foreign and national security policy for the US and other countries in the region of which US troops deployed to Syria had become a part. To understand that bigger picture, one only needs to listen closely to the persistent anti-US grumblings voiced from the capitals of potential adversaries within the region. National leaders and other top officials of those countries insist more directly that they have the will and inclination to assert themselves in Syria. In addition to those grumblings are tests of missiles of considerable range and latent warnings concerning the reinitiation of an ostensibly dormant nuclear weapons program. Perhaps through miscalculation, they might decide to act against US forces not simply to destroy them, but rather as a means to force them out. Fresh in the minds of many in the region are the 1983 attack on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and the 1996 attack on US troops at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the responses by the US. Perhaps a few US political leader, though surely well-meaning, have forgotten that the enemy will have a say in the outcome of the best laid plans of Washington. (With all of the “what ifs” considered, force security has been optimized through the employment of a suite of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods by US force commanders in Syria. Yet, only the clairvoyants can walk with an assured step in the opaqueness of the Levant. There, one must always expect the unexpected.) Lessons learned from past US military deployments to support allies in the region, which were also relatively limited in scope, have undoubtedly left Trump determined to avoid the disasters that US Presidents have faced in the past. It is far preferable for the US to act, not wait until it must react in response to such possibilities. Further, if Trump, using his experience with, and understanding of, other national leaders has felt vibrations, intimations that US forces were facing an increased danger from a certain direction in Syria, it would only be prudent him to be safe rather than sorry by moving those troops elsewhere. Correlatively, Trump would never be willing to take the chance of having the US plunged into a conflict on an adversaries terms.
The possibility must be considered that a clash between US forces and a prospective adversary on the ground in Syria could put US troops in real jeopardy. True, numbers are not everything, and the outcome of a military engagement that would include very capable US troops cannot be determined by simple bean counting. To avoid such clashes, since 2015, the US and Russia have maintained a “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of their respective air and ground forces in Syria. Still, US troops have exercised their right to self-defense and clashes have occurred. When pro-Syrian regime fighters, mostly Russian mercenaries, attacked 40 US troops at their military base at a refinery near the town of Deir al-Zour in February 2018, around 200 of the attackers were killed. There were no US casualties. Despite that favorable outcome, circumstances may not stand in the favor of US troops on some other occasion. Russian military forces and the forces of other potential adversaries on the ground in Syria are actually formidable given their size and strength. They are close enough to US troops to pose a danger that should not be dismissed.
The order to withdraw US troops from Syria might have equated to the sounding of retreat if it had occurred following a very public threat from an adversary, or had occurred in the face of an adversary’s deployment of its forces on the ground precisely to threaten US forces. A decision not to withdraw in response to such military threats from adversaries would likely require the deployment of greater numbers of US troops in Syria and perhaps preparation for a larger war in the region. This consideration has rarely been a factor discussed by Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. However, it would only be a natural concern for any US president who has placed US troops in harm’s way. Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.)
As with other US troops in the region, US forces in Syria face a significant threat from attack by potential adversaries in the region with long-range artillery and rockets in country and precision rockets from their countries or other locations in the region in which their forces are operating. The spectrum of possible attacks indeed goes beyond frontal assaults on the several small US bases in Syria’s northeast. This consideration has also failed to find its way into the commentaries of Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. The enemy has the ultimate say in how it might strike. Projections that fail to ascribe all probabilities and limit consideration to only some possibilities, perhaps the top five or top ten, while dismissing those they may feel are unlikely or de minimus, are flawed. To make a decision without the complete picture would be akin to walking down a blind alley.
There has always been the reality that Assad could attempt to strike US forces in Syria using his remaining chemical weapons stockpile, the same stockpile that the Russian Federation had confirmed that he had removed. Such an attack could be conducted as a suicide attack or “martyrdom operation”. Assad could potentially conduct such an attack even if his regime was placed in complete jeopardy. Assad is a study in miscalculation and irrationality especially when it comes to military action. A surprise chemical attack against a US base in Syria could have a devastating effect, harming a great number of troops. US troops have guarded against any effort by Assad to put his forces in positions near their bases. Away from the combat zone of Syria, comfort may be found in the thought that US forces could respond to such a chemical strike with an immediate, devastating strike upon the regime, essentially destroying it. Still, a massive retaliatory against the Assad regime would do little to help any US troops lost or injured in such an attack. The US certainly cannot rely upon Moscow to keep Assad in check regarding his chemical weapons. In reality, the door has been left open to his madness for some time. Non omnes eadem amant aut easdem cupiditates studiaque habent. (Not all men love the same things or have the same desires and interests.)
The notion that the presence of US troops in Syria should remain to serve as a barrier or trip wires in case of attacks against US allies and friends by potential adversaries and also by other US allies and friends is abhorrent. With regard to dealing with US allies, the capabilities of US diplomats should not be underrated to the extent that military force posed against allies must suffice for skilled negotiation. As for potential adversaries, it is uncertain what would be the fate of US forces if an adversary launched a swift, concerted attack with combined arms against them. It would appear that many US political leaders, policy analysts, and particularly Trump’s critics and detractors in the US news media are willing to wait and see what happens. Leaving US troops in Syria to continue as they have until the time that they might actually be attacked by an adversary could be called questionable judgment. It would essentially boil down to waiting around until casualties are suffered by US forces. Such thinking does not flow from the concept of America First. If having an available response in Syria is absolutely necessary, US military planners could develop a scheme, for example, to encamp US troops in nearby Iraq, Jordan, or perhaps even Turkey, arrange, determine ways to synchronize surprise deployments or powerful blows from vertical and ground assaults against an attacking force at a time and place of the choosing of US commanders. It might actually be a more effective way to place US forces in a position superior to that of an adversary in order to destroy it as effectually as possible.
If US troops in Syria were attacked in a concerted military way or were hit with some massive terrorist attack and losses were suffered, there is no guarantee that public support would exist nationally and that political will would exist in the US Congress for a large military build up in Syria and perhaps the start of a wider war in the region. Trump administration plans might very well be waylaid by a rebuff from the Congress given that control of the US House of Representatives has gone to the Democrats, the political party in opposition to Trump and his Republican Party, following the 2018 US Congressional Election. All indications are that the intention of the Democrats is to be activist, questioning decisions on foreign and national security policy of the US president and possibly uprooting some. (As these things go, the focus of Trump’s political foes would likely be the tragedy of the attack, itself, and why more consideration had not been given, and why more had not been done, to ensure their safety and security. It might be then that the decision of keeping US troops in Syria would be lambasted as questionable judgment given the mission was so limited.) It would seem best for Trump to act now to ensure the safety and security of US troops, rather than face what could very well be: a tragic situation of unknown consequences; the need to make a decision under duress on whether to remain and fight or withdraw; and, if he decides to remain, almost ensure that he will contend with an enormous political battle over the fight in Syria with Congress. To act now, by withdrawing US troops, rather than wait for an adversary to decide their fate, could be considered prudent. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest, quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)
Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other regional actors, as well as European allies such as the United Kingdom and France, are already taking steps through airstrikes, ground incursions, raids, and other direct attacks to degrade well-known terrorist groups lurking in strongholds in Syria. Israel, in particular has focused also on placing severe limitations on the capabilities and capacity of a certain country that is also potential adversary of the US in the region. Yet, while such actions have been useful in curating the diverse ecosystem of military forces and terrorist groups on the ground, they have also increased the chances that those elements would attempt to lash out in retribution against US forces in Syria. Thus, as a result of the US troop presence in Syria, US allies have doubtlessly acted in a manner that would avoid precipitating such retribution. Planning for airstrikes in Syria, for example, was done by allies through the Coalition Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and independently at their respective national air operations headquarters with US troops on the ground firmly in mind.
The primary and strongest US ally in the region, Israel, has been somewhat restrained in its operations in Syria against some longtime adversaries, who have been malign actors not only in the region, but around the world. Upon the departure of US troops from Syria, Israel will be provided an opportunity, a freer hand, to engage in more effectual and perhaps more robust action there. No longer hamstrung by the potential misstep of provoking its adversaries to strike against US forces ostensibly in retribution for its attacks, Israel may decide to finally crack the problem of the presence of its adversaries being based so close to its sovereign territory. With likely the same minimum of attention its operations in Syria have attracted so far in the global news media, Israel can engage in concentrated operations to degrade its adversaries and eliminate threats with a tempo and ferocity such that those adversaries could no longer face losses inflicted upon them. To borrow a phrase from former US President Richard Nixon, Israel will have the opportunity to “sock it to them!” If those adversaries would choose to resist exiting Syria, in order to survive, they would very likely be required to redeploy in a way that would make them ineffective on the ground. Indeed, Israel might be able to create the type of environment in Syria that would cause pause among Islamic militant groups hoping to establish themselves in Syria. The extent to which the US might support or assist Israel with any efforts in Syria is uncertain. That would likely be decided sub rosa. However, the US would most likely step up and provide whatever might be possible. Turkey would also have a similar opportunity to respond more robustly against Islamic militant groups in Syria. Turkey’s military capabilities, though, are somewhat limited in comparison to those of Israel and its increased efforts would likely require incurring greater risks.
With regard to impressions the withdrawal of US troops from Syria might have made upon the global audience, few capitals worldwide would likely equate their sovereign countries, whose nationhood and history they extol, to the autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria. While feelings of empathy may be felt by national leaders toward the Kurds situation, most would hardly commit anything too significant from their own resources in support of them. In fact, some national leaders would likely agree with the notion that US troops should be kept out of harm’s way to avoid at least for now, a greater conflict in the region. Cito enim arescit lacrimal praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear quickly dries when shed for the misfortunes of others.)
The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will ostensibly eliminate all financial costs for the US related to that deployment. At the same time, Russia and other countries remaining in Syria will need to keep a robust military and security presence there in order to reasonably maintain control of the situation, or at control of that area referred to as “Useful Syria”. They would most likely need to engage in many more operations against Islamic militant groups to secure peace as such groups may attempt to violently reestablish themselves in the country. The job of “restoring Syria to its past glory” through reconstruction will be incredibly difficult as Russia and one of the countries remaining in Syria are contending with punishing sanctions for misdeeds on other matters. They would surely be precluded collecting the amount of financial resources necessary to engage in such an undertaking successfully. As months and possibly years pass, the effects of wind and rain will make bomb-damaged, dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures even less appealing to the eye. The same global audience whose views on the US troop withdrawal were a concern for Trump’s critics and detractors, would have an excellent opportunity to observe and assess what might be in-store for them if they too relied on the patronage of those countries. They could judge for themselves what leadership from those countries is really worth.
Removing the conventional US military footprint in Syria would place the responsibility to develop a complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement in the country squarely in the court of Russia and other countries who remain there. Any attempt to proceed without such a plan would be a huge blunder. Moving too slowly to repair Syria will allow ideal conditions to exist for an Islamic militant groups to attempt to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That is what occurred in Iraq after US forces were withdrawn. It was all pretty much foreseen by many US intelligence analysts. Unfortunately, the histories of Russia and other countries in Syria include no authentic success in such a reconstruction effort in contemporary times. As mentioned already, the economic circumstances of those countries are dire, shaped in great part by sanctions. That factor might do much to hinder them from gathering resources to engage in such an undertaking.
Conditions in Syria may not be optimal for the US, but Trump recognized that he was in a relatively favorable position to make the decision to withdraw, and he did so. Despite all of the bdelygmia, the decision appears to be the result of an in-depth examination of the realities of the Syria mission by Trump and his closest aides and advisers over time. The factors presented here reflect Trump’s pattern of well-considering the short-term and long-term interests of the US, before taking any steps. With so many actors on the stage in Syria doing so many disparate and discreet things, it is also possible that some rarefied, furtive bit of information marked “for the president’s eyes only” may have been behind the choice made. At the risk of unsettling readers by injecting in a bit of levity in the subject matter, one could say that Trump, the erstwhile owner of a plethora of casinos, is expert at knowing “when to hold up, when to fold up, when to walk away, and when to run!”