What is the Exit Plan for Syria?

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Syrian kurds demonstrate against Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia posts in northern Syria, on October 31, 2018. A Kurdish-led force backed by the US-led coalition said it was suspending operations against the Islamic State group after Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia posts in northern Syria. (Photo: Deli Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images)
Syrian Kurds demonstrate against Turkish shelling of Kurdish militia posts in northern Syria in October 2018.  (Photo: Deli Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 8, 2018, the American think tank Security Studies Group shared an exit plan for Syria with the National Security Council. Key points in the analysis were the conclusions that:

  • The U.S. should execute a phased withdrawal from Syria that transitions to peacekeeping and development operations by allies in the region.
  • The U.S. should urgently negotiate an agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to provide both economic development and military resources needed to create a protectorate in Sunni areas of Syria.
  • The U.S. should negotiate an agreement with Turkey that mitigates their concerns about Kurdish expansion on their border and protects the People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) allies.
  • The U.S. should facilitate an economic exchange of oil and other products from Syria.
  • The U.S. should limit Russian and Iranian influence to only those areas already under control of the Assad regime.
  • The Shiite Crescent envisioned by Iran must not be allowed to form across Syria.

On December 19, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that victory against ISIS had been achieved and ordered U.S. forces to withdraw from Syria. The immediate question is: How will we move from political rhetoric to an exit strategy in Syria in the coming months? 

While Clarion Project discussed how regional players like Turkey, Iran and Russia will respond to the Syria withdrawal, there are two more obstacles in play:

Will an exit plan for Syria include staying in the fight?

The consensus among analysts and experts is that endless occupations in countries such Iraq and Afghanistan are not the way forward. However, a policy of persistent engagement would give U.S. special forces and intelligence agencies points of entry with existing and potential allies and the flexibility to counter existing and emerging threats in the region.

Withdrawal from Syria, absent a long-term strategy, creates a vacuum that allows violent Islamists to flourish, which is what happened when U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The strategy of national building failed, and withdrawal will double down on that failure as recent history has shown.

One central problem is the lack of a national security process. There is not a coherent regional strategy, and President Trump has been resistant to the process normally used to develop such a strategy. Trump made the decision to withdraw from Syria without consulting key leaders in the U.S. Defense and State Departments, the intelligence community and our coalition allies. Yet, he tweeted that he discussed “the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area” with Turkey’s fanatical Islamist President Erdogan.

The short-term effects of this decision-making style are clear.  Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, resigned over Trump’s decision. 

If President Trump made the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria based on a conversation with Erdogan, that is cause for greater concern. Tukey’s primary goal vis-a-vis Syria is to crush the Syrian Kurds and eliminate the Kurdish semi-autonomous zones in Northern Syria.

In the past, Turkey has allowed ISIS fighters passage through Turkey into Syria and Iraq. It is important to note Erdogan considers ISIS a short-term controllable threat and Kurdish separatists as a long-term existential threat. History informs us Turkey’s goals in Syria are to destroy the Kurds (a true American ally) and maintain an enduring presence in northern Syria in their fight against them.

A legitimate argument can be made for a partial, phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria, but this would be one that keeps the coalition intact and allows for re-entry into Syria should conditions warrant it. But this decision should be part of a coherent, long-term regional strategy and should come with the acknowledgements that ISIS in Syria is not defeated and that this conflict will almost certainly continue for decades.

This brings us to the next point:

The decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria is predicated on a lie. ISIS, in Syria, is not defeated.

Trump’s declaration of victory against ISIS in Syria is not only not true, it is not possible. First, ISIS still controls plenty of pockets of territory in Syria. This “defeated group” managed to kill 700 prisoners in the last two months alone. Second, a victory against a group like ISIS (including its offshoots) is not possible through conventional war. Our adversary is not a nation state; it is an ideology embraced by transnational Salafist extremists across a global arc.

The Islamic State is a cancer.  If we stop treating this cancer by abandoning our allies in Syria, we give this cancer the room it needs to metastasize. A U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be proclaimed as a victory within the virtual caliphate and will serve as a springboard for funding and recruitment.  

The U.S. and its coalition partners aren’t simply fighting violent Salafists and Wahhabists; we are fighting the ideology that drives them. We cannot kill our way to victory because an idea can’t be killed with a bullet or a bomb. It can only be killed with a better idea.

As the U.S. prepares to exit Syria, does it have a plan for what comes next? Is there an effective strategy to counter the ideological component of this war?

When U.S. politicians speak of defeating ISIS, they need a plan to counter both the fighters on the ground and the ideology that drives them. To do that, the U.S. must work with and through our partners in the Muslim world and be prepared to be critical of allies such as Saudi Arabia when necessary.

To prevail, U.S. officials must not only understand our enemy, they must understand the ideology that drives them. (Unfortunately, it needs to be said that simplistic theories such as “Islam is the problem” does not constitute understanding the ideology.)

Victory in the conventional sense is not attainable because we are not fighting a conventional enemy. ISIS is not defeated. There will be no homecoming parades or treaty signings with ISIS or al-Qaeda.

However, success can be achieved if we are clear-eyed in our assessments and consistent in our actions. This is both a world war and a multi-generational war. America continued to engage West Germany after World War II and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) after the Korean War. Over the course of six decades, both nations developed strong economies and vibrant democracies.

The glide path in Afghanistan will be much different, but if we choose to commit that same level of engagement in Afghanistan then, at a minimum, the radical networks that threaten the American homeland will not be given the space they need to flourish and grow.

While action by military forces and intelligence agencies will keep the homeland safer, it will not counter the violent ideology that drives ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates. We defeated Nazi Germany in 1945, and yet neo-Nazis still march today. However, even though Nazism still exists today, it has been degraded to the point of irrelevancy. We should use this model in accessing our success over ISIS and al-Qaeda, keeping in mind that no amount of intelligence gathering and military action will kill an idea or defeat an ideology.  

As the U.S. exits Syria, we must not be afraid of, or shy away from, the answers to the following questions:

  • Have we defeated ISIS?  No 
  • Will unconditional withdrawal contribute to the fall of ISIS? No
  • How do we degrade ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates over the long term? By winning the ideological battle

In short, the U.S must:

  • Continue to support reliable allies, including the Kurds, Israel and Jordan
  • Have a process whereby allies and experts with deep knowledge and experience in the  region can not only provide input but have their recommendations seriously considered
  • Develop and implement an adaptive strategy that brings to bear the full spectrum of U.S. and coalition military, diplomatic, and economic power, and allows U.S. military and intelligence agencies the ability and flexibility to re-engage and/or escalate as conditions on the ground warrant

The decision to withdraw U.S. military forces in Syria and Afghanistan, absent a strategy, will embolden our adversaries, endanger our allies and ultimately threaten the American homeland.



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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.

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