Mission accomplished. ISIS is defeated, Syria is stable and there is absolutely no need for the American military to remain in Syria. But is this really the case? Technically, ISIS has lost nearly all of its previously held territory in Syria, suffering numerous major defeats in both Syria and Iraq. According to U.S. military officials, in 2017 fewer than 1000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq and ISIS has lost 98% of its territory. As 2018 comes to an end, it would appear that ISIS is facing an imminent defeat. Despite this, President Trump’s surprise announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria comes with significant ramifications for Syria, the Middle East and ultimately the global hegemony.
Whilst the 2000 American troops in Syria played no combative role (and the American military reserves the ability to launch air strikes if necessary), the withdrawal of American forces ultimately is a symbolic representation of the United States’ commitment to their Middle Eastern allies and will likely result in a shift of power in the Middle East. The Kurdish YPG forces – one of America’s main allies in the war against ISIS – is at the brunt of the shock decision. The YPG is widely regarded as one of the most effective fighting forces against ISIS in Syria, with their success culminating in several major victories, including the Siege of Kobani and the capture of Raqqa (the former de facto capital of ISIS). The YPG has received support from both the United States and coalition nations on several occasions to continue the fight against ISIS.
Despite the YPG’s reputation as a formidable opponent to ISIS, Turkey has designated the YPG as a terrorist organisation due to its alleged connection with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – a rebel group fighting for autonomy and independence since the 1980s. America’s military withdrawal from Syria therefore leaves the YPG exposed and vulnerable to an attack by Turkey. Indeed, this is likely as the Turkish military had already carried out attacks against the YPG in coordination with pro-Turkey Syrian rebels in 2016. In 2018, the Turkish military also seized control of the YPG-held Afrin region. Thus, the move can be seen internationally as a symbolic desertion of an important ally in the Middle East, creating uncertainty about the United States’ commitment to their regional and global allies.
As previously stated, the American forces in Syria served no combative role but rather was an important diplomatic piece that illustrated America’s commitment to their ally against ISIS as well as helped to restrain Turkey from launching any offensive attacks against the YPG during the fight against ISIS. The presence of American troops therefore served to enforce and preserve stability in a region torn apart by conflict and power struggles. At a time in which the global stability is being challenged most notably by rising U.S.-China and U.S.-Russian tensions on the world stage, it is critical that the United States is able to reassure its allies that America is still the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, the withdrawal of American troops and the desertion of the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria only fuels this uncertainty by putting its allies on edge. The decision can also perpetuate mistrust amongst other forces in the Middle East, making it more difficult for the United States to cooperate with local elements (including the staunch U.S. ally Israel which has expressed significant concern regarding the troop withdrawal) in the region if necessary in the future. This can weaken America’s influence on the world stage by emboldening potential opponents seeking to change the global hegemony, taking advantage of what potentially can be seen as America’s lack of commitment to its global allies and the free world.
On a larger scale, the military withdrawal creates a power vacuum in the Middle East, one that regional and global players will actively seek to exploit. The major players at the forefront of the power struggle would be the Assad government, Iran, Russia and the YPG – all of which are interested in expanding their influence in Syria and thus the Middle East.
Withdrawal of the American military from Syria has already contributed to a shift of allegiances in the region with the Assad government deploying Syrian troops to support the Kurdish YPG forces in a northern Syrian city against Turkey. The Assad government is backed by Iran and Russia, and is an opponent of the United States. America’s desertion of the YPG will likely push them towards Russia and the Assad government – a probable consequence of the symbolic withdrawal of commitment towards America’s allies – as they seek to defend themselves against Turkey. The YPG has already requested the Syrian government to take control over the town of Manbij (a YPG controlled town) to protect themselves against a Turkish attack. It is likely that the YPG will potentially continue to hand over border posts along the Turkish border to the Assad government in an attempt to create a buffer zone between Turkey. Either way, the Iranian and Russian backed Assad government, seeking to regain control over the entire Syrian region, will likely seize the opportunity from the withdrawal of the American military, to take back its borders.
The main issue of the expansion of the Assad government lies in the deepening of Iranian and Russian influence in Syria. The symbolic retreat of America leaves room for the encroaching and widening influence of Iran and Russia to expand their spheres of influence in the Middle East. Israel has already expressed significant concern that the withdrawal will increase Iranian influence in the Middle East, emboldening the anti-Israeli regime and potentially leading to Iranian military retrenchment into Syria. If Iran is able to properly exploit the power vacuum left by the American withdrawal through its continued support of the Assad government, this may lead to an arms race between Israel and Iran, which may provide justification for other Middle Eastern nations to also partake in the arms race.
Russia is also a key ally of the Assad regime and with the American withdrawal, will likely seize the opportunity to become a key power in the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war in 2015 ensured the preservation of the Assad government. Its continued support of Assad in the absence of American restrictions can deepen Russia’s influence in the region. With U.S.-Russian tensions already fairly high, an emboldened Russia may choose to assert its dominance on the world stage, particularly Ukraine. Russia has already shown its willingness to use overt military force against Ukraine – a NATO ally – in the latest confrontation in the Sea of Azov where Russia attacked Ukrainian military ships and captured two dozen Ukrainian sailors. America’s symbolic abandonment of its Syrian ally and its shocking capitulation to Russia may likely stoke fears and uncertainty amongst its NATO allies, including Ukraine, which rely on America’s support to prevent the spread of Russian influence in Europe.
Before announcing the troop withdrawal, Trump called Turkish President Erdogan to ask whether Turkish forces will be able to finish the job of defeating ISIS if American troops were pulled out – to which Erdogan replied that Turkey can do the job. However, Turkey may have gotten more than it bargained for. If the Turkish military decides to launch an offensive against the last remaining ISIS pockets near the Iraqi border, they would have to cross 250km of YPG-controlled territory – a move that the YPG will unlikely permit easily. As such, Turkey may seize the opportunity to strike both the YPG and ISIS, challenging the growth of the Assad regime seeking to regain control of its former borders. This would essentially pit Turkey against the Kurdish forces and the Assad government, potentially stoking an armed confrontation. Although the numbers of organised ISIS fighters have dwindled significantly, thousands of jihadists are believed to have dispersed throughout the region. If further disorder reignites, this would create additional regional instability which ISIS may exploit in order to regroup, rally and retake some of its lost territory.
To conclude, whilst ISIS is currently dwindling on its last breath, the ramifications of an American military withdrawal from Syria will likely impact both regional and global stability. It is therefore essential that the United States reaffirms its commitment to its international allies and as the leader of the free world. Whilst the withdrawal of American troops serves less of a practical purpose, its true value lies in its symbolic representation of the United States’ relationship with its allies, as well as ensuring regional stability by preventing the formation of a power vacuum. With America’s pull out from Syria, it is likely that Assad, Iran, Russia and Turkey will carve out the newly available territory in order to bolster their influence in the region and on the world stage. Mission accomplished? Perhaps not.