When President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the backlash was predictable — and bipartisan. Leon Panetta, secretary of defense in the Obama administration, called the decision a "serious foreign policy blunder," arguing that "we're putting a knife in the back of the Kurds." Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said it was "shortsighted and irresponsible" and a "disaster in the making."
Only a few days later, Turkey began military operations in northern Syria. However, that doesn't mean the president's critics were right. What they refuse to acknowledge is that U.S. national security is not at stake in Syria. So while "many experts worry Turkey will slaughter Syrian Kurds," we should really be asking: Why should U.S. troops risk being killed to defend the Kurds?
To begin, the U.S. never should have meddled in Syria in the first place. The original rationale for U.S. military intervention in Syria was the rise of the Islamic State. But ISIS was never an existential threat to America — a fact acknowledged by President Obama even while he persisted in trying to destroy it without proper congressional authorization to use military force. ISIS was largely a threat to its fellow Muslims in and around Syria because it represents an ideological war within Islam. Moreover, insofar as it posed a territorial threat in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been defeated. The so-called caliphate is gone, and any possible ISIS resurgence is opposed by a host of regional forces in addition to the United States.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration chose to continue U.S. military operations in Syria after the anti-ISIS mission ended. In March 2019, the last pocket of ISIS-held territory — once some 34,000 square miles stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq — was freed. Any remaining work to be done is not a task for military intervention: ISIS represents a form of radical Islamic ideology, and it is up to other Muslims, not the U.S. military, to counter radical Islamic ideology.
Thus at this point it is fair to say the U.S. military no longer has a valid mission in Syria. But what about our Kurdish allies who fought so valiantly to help us battle ISIS? Aren't we abandoning them? Won't they now get slaughtered by the Turks?
The hard truth is that, technically, the Kurds aren't allies — at least not in the formal and legal sense. We don't have an alliance treaty with them as we do with our NATO allies, Turkey included. More importantly, alliances are built on mutual interests, generally shared security interests. But U.S. security does not depend on whether the Kurds have autonomy in northern Syria. In fact, the Kurdish desire to create their own state — which would likely include territory in Turkey, where roughly half the Kurdish population in the Middle East resides — is arguably contrary to U.S. national security interests because Turkey is a NATO ally. Some Syrian Kurds are also supportive of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an on-and-off again secessionist war against Ankara for more than 30 years.
There is also an ulterior motive for those advocating a continued U.S. military presence in Syria: regime change. Both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists have long had their sights on Bashar al-Assad. There is no question Assad is on odious dictator, a thug, and a threat to his own people — including having used chemical weapons against them.
But however brutal and unsavory, the regime in Damascus is not a direct threat to U.S. national security. Assad has no military capability to inflict harm on America. And to the extent that U.S. military forces could be threatened by the Syrian military, it’s only because we have troops in their country.
Furthermore, U.S. policymakers should recognize by now that regime change doesn’t work. Certainly, we have used military force to successfully depose regimes: the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Given relatively weak opponents, achieving initial military victory is not really the concern. But the envisioned result — a peaceful, stable, democratic state — has not been achieved. That much is more than obvious in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is beyond wishful thinking that we could succeed in Syria.
Those who are arguing the U.S. should stay in Syria are essentially prescribing another forever war where U.S. national security is once again not at stake.
The U.S. decision to disengage from Syria could have been handled better, but that doesn’t mean disengagement is the wrong decision. Rather than a precipitous withdrawal, a more workable exit plan could have included incentives to reassure Turkey and avert slaughter of the Kurds.
Still, U.S. withdrawal is overdue. But by not making that decision months ago — having already made the ill-advised decision to intervene in Syria — the U.S. was left with only two bad options: risk war with Turkey or get out of the way. The former is not tenable, because we cannot afford to put American soldiers' lives at risk to defend the Kurds against a NATO ally. The latter may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is what serves U.S. national security interests best.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than twenty-five years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.