The dust is settling with Iran. Now, Washington must pivot to Syria

By Olivia Wang, Foreign Policy News
January 22, 2020

Washington and Tehran are de-escalating following the death of General Soleimani and Iran’s counterattack which, so far, has resulted in no casualties. For now, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has batted away concerns that U.S. troops would leave Iraq imminently, and its parliament has yet to take further legal action to kick them out.

But with Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, taking the reins of Iranian proxies throughout the region, and President Putin meeting with Assad in Damascus for only the second time since the conflict began, Washington must quickly pivot and re-engage neighboring Syria and our partners there. 

In October, after intense bipartisan backlash and the steadfast efforts of his top advisors, the President chose to maintain a limited presence in Syria’s East in Deir Ezzor and al-Tanf and relocated some primarily to secure the oilfields near Iraq. While the oilfields produce an insignificant amount to global oil markets, securing them does withhold an important financial resource from both the Assad regime and ISIS. And now that it’s winter, Syrians need the oil for fuel. This source of leverage does keep resources from the regime, but the United States can do more by creating mobile refineries and finding domestic markets accessible to Syrian civilians.

However, keeping troops in Iraq and Syria is not only about the oil, nor should it be—it’s about what’s next in Syria. Moving forward, the United States needs a comprehensive approach above and beyond a simply anti-ISIS mindset. Sufficient and continued U.S. troop presence can maintain some stability in the region, prevent Assad, Russia, and Iran (especially anticipating Qaani’s direction) from accessing more territory and resources, and salvage our relationship with a reformed SDF. Procuring a future stable, representative government the Syrian people want will simultaneously keep America’s enemies, state and nonstate, from gaining a stronghold in the Middle East. It can also help restore our tarnished credibility in the region.

Limited U.S. troop presence has proven effective in the past. It’s stabilized a part of an otherwise conflict-ridden Syria by making the northeast a de facto no-fly zone. This provided a respite for civilians—who have been enduring the brunt of the conflict—withheld territorial gains from the Assad regime and ISIS, and created a space for anti-ISIS operations to take place. Without it we effectively hand Syria over to our enemies: Assad, Iran, and/or Russia. To prevent this, Congress can support bipartisan legislation like H.R. 914 to ensure a sufficient number of troops stay until a comprehensive and competent plan is in place. They must also ensure the Assad regime does not take over Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. Conceding these territories not only guarantees the brutal persecution of Syrians in those cities where the origins of the protests began, but also further legitimizes the regime and, by association, Russia and Iran.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, if we want to limit the United States’s direct military role, we need a sufficient number of troops to ally with a renewed SDF. Their partnership in fighting ISIS and defeating the physical caliphate, losing 11,000 of their own in the process, has not only earned the respect of our Special Forces, but has also protected U.S. national security. Withdrawing without a plan where the SDF is protected and self-sufficient renders U.S. efforts in combating ISIS, Russian, and Iranian influence null because it gives them no option but to partner with America’s enemies, as seen after Turkey’s incursion. Fortunately, even after the incursion and complaints of “betrayal” aside, the SDF would still rather choose us over the regime. Capitalizing off the regime’s distrustful reputation can prevent losing our local ally on the ground and protect U.S. security while avoiding total military involvement. 

Finally, even with the physical caliphate gone, Baghdadi dead, and the “safety cushion” of being 7,000 miles away, ISIS ideology is still alive. Investing in a reformed SDF, one with diverse and inclusive leadership, can inhibit ISIS’ expected resurgence. Formerly, the tunnel-vision of our military agenda overwhelmed our political objective, allowing the PKK-aligned soldiers to fill leadership roles and mistreat local Arab populations—aggrieved people whom Soleimani reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit to attack the United States. And contrary to popular belief, the SDF and the SDC, the political arm of the SDF, are not homogeneously Kurdish. There is a large Kurdish element including but not limited to the YPG, while Arabs make up 50 percent of the ranks. And even within the Kurdish element of the SDF there is divergence due to the YPG’s abuses. In fact, Mashaal Tammo, a Syrian Kurd, was likely killed by Kurdish forces for expressing discontent over such abuses. U.S. assistance with reforming the leadership structure of the SDF and SDC is critical for a sustainable partnership, one that achieves a model of governance for when a political transition can take place. This investment signals to the Syrian people that the United States has not lost sight of their goal, the meaning behind their sacrifice and turmoil.

Additionally, integrating Arabs into the leadership structure can help quell Turkey’s ongoing security concerns over the SDF/YPG/PKK connection, and tamp down blanket accusations of “terrorism.” U.S. recognition of the Arab tribal leaders and the Arab clans’ contributions to the fight against ISIS can also prevent radicalization. Investing in the SDF will secure a stable, unified ally on the ground that will continue to help us fight what remains of ISIS and stave off the regime, Iran, and Russia. Congress must capitalize off the SDF’s need for a security guarantee by continuing to partner with and assist the SDF/SDC in its internal issues so they remain a formidable ally in the fight against our enemies.

The first weeks of 2020 have undoubtedly presented its foreign policy challenges, but we must not let that distract from our pursuit of U.S. national security objectives in the Middle East, especially in Syria. Securing the oil was a helpful tool to provide President Trump with sympathetic reasons for staying. Now, Congress and the Pentagon must use our continued leverage to further our interests in the region.

Olivia Wang is a Policy Fellow with Americans for a Free Syria