Leaving Syria – What Happens Next?

Map Syria Admin Divisions CIA 2007

Trump’s Surprise Announcement

On Thursday, December 19, 2018, President Trump tweeted that we had attained victory over the Islamic State (IS) and that all military personnel would depart immediately.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

President Trump, Wednesday, December 19, 2018, 9:29 am.

This tweet seemed to have caught the Pentagon, Congress, and others by surprise. Republican Senators for the most part were quite unhappy with this reversal in policy. As of December 2018, there were about 2,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria. In addition, there were a smaller number of State Department and other governmental personnel in Syria as well.

The Winners

Turkish Delight. The Turks, of course, are excited with the prospects of finally being able to attack the Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria. The Turks have been at war with the Kurds for decades. With a U.S. withdrawal from Syria the SDF’s main benefactor is out of the picture leaving the Kurds very vulnerable for a Turkish offensive.

Some argue that Turkey will take over the fight against the Islamic State. In fact, Turkey has done very little against ISIS. In addition, the Turkish military doesn’t have the ‘reach’ to get to the remaining pockets of ISIS in Syria. Turkey has little motivation to fight ISIS – as the terrorist group has been fighting the Kurds and the Assad regime – an enemy of Turkey.

It is also interesting that the Turks have agreed to a $3.5 billion purchase of the Patriot missile system. This is a huge boost to Raytheon’s bottom line and perhaps negates the Turkish deal with the Russians for the purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Russian Interest as Well. The Russians welcomed the news of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. It described the move as a “real prospect for a political solution”. This move will solidify Russia’s relationship with Turkey, strengthen the Assad regime, and provide more security for Russia’s air and sea bases in western Syria.

Iranian Influence Grows. The U.S. leaving Syria provides more opportunity for Iran to expand its influence and power within the Middle East. A U.S. withdrawal would mean that Iran would have the ability to move men, equipment, and weapons more freely from Iran to Syria (and on into Lebanon) without constraints. The Iraqi Ramadi-Rutba route onto Syria’s Route 2 going to Damascus will possibly open with the withdrawal of US and Free Syria Army forces depart Al-Tanf where more than 200 U.S. personnel are based. Syria’s M4 and M20 highways will become more accessible for Iran as well.

Hezbollah. Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, also benefits as well. Certainly its image is enhanced with an Assad regime victory. It will very likely retain control of many of the small Shia militias spread throughout Syria.

IS Wins as Well. The one organization that has been taking the fight to Islamic State has been the SDF. Now that U.S. support is leaving the SDF will have to fend off IS as well as be on guard against the Syrian government, Turkey, and the proxy forces (militias) of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

The Losers

The Syrian Kurds come out as the biggest losers. The U.S. removal of troops mean that the door is open to a Turkish offensive against the Kurdish enclave. The Syrian people lose as well. This U.S. move leaves a political and security void that will cause a realignment of interests and loyalties.

Confusion in the Administration

The Pentagon was not the only organization caught off guard with Trump’s announcement. It appears that other senior advisors and officials in the administration did not see this coming. In the past week the National Security Advisor, John Bolton, said that the U.S. would stay in Syria until Iran ended its military presence. General Joe Dunford recently said that we still need to train up local security forces in northeastern Syria; indicating that it would take a long time to the security forces to the state where they could provide stability to the region.


“The Coalition mission in northeast Syria remains unchanged. We continue our normal operations, including observation posts in the border region to address the security concerns of our NATO ally Turkey. We remain committed to working with our partners on the ground to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS. Any reports indicating a change in the U.S. position with respect to these efforts is false and designed to sow confusion and chaos.”

Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, December 15, 2018.

Brett McGurk, Special Envoy to Iraq, was taken by surprise with the Trump reversal on Syria. He had been working the anti-ISIS campaign on behalf of President Bush, President Obama, and President Trump. McGurk would resign within days of making the remark below.

“It would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now. I think anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”

Special Envoy to Iraq / Syria, Brett McGurk, December 11, 2018.

John Bolton seemed to be supportive of staying in Syria. He is especially worried about the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East.

“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

National Security Advisor John Bolton, September 2018.

IS Still Operational

Despite the steady defeat of its forces and loss of almost all of the territory that IS previously held in Syria – the organization is far from defeated. It has reverted back to the insurgent operations that it was very adept at several years back. With the withdrawal of the U.S. and the Syrian Kurds ability to fight IS diminished (lack of U.S. air and artillery support and attacks by Turkey) the Islamic State catches a break.

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