If President Donald Trump gets his way, the United States will soon be heading for the door in Syria. At a March 29 rally, the president said that troops will be leaving "very soon." And about a week later, The Washington Post reported that Trump had instructed the Department of Defense to draw up exit plans, although he didn't set a deadline. The likelihood of a pullout is uncertain because the Pentagon, the State Department and other parts of the U.S. government are pushing the case that the United States needs to remain in Syria. Furthermore, a withdrawal will create power vacuums, affect relations with enemies and allies, and weaken U.S. influence in the region.
The Benefits of a U.S. Withdrawal From Syria
A withdrawal from Syria could benefit the United States in three ways. A pullout would free up previously committed troops for other missions. The United States has maintained a relatively small presence in Syria with about 2,000 personnel, but most of these troops are from special operations units, which are consistently in high demand. And the aircraft supporting these forces could be used elsewhere. This process has already taken place in some cases with a shift of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units and ground attack aircraft to Afghanistan.
A pullout could also help improve ties with Russia. Moscow has consistently and adamantly demanded that U.S. forces leave Syria. As Washington considers its relationship with Moscow, the White House may conclude that improved ties are necessary for greater cooperation on other matters, particularly North Korea and arms control. A withdrawal could be seen as an initial step toward stronger relations.
But the third, most important, beneficiary of a withdrawal could be the U.S. relationship with Turkey. U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a rebel group dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), has been one of the greatest impediments to a good relationship between Washington and Ankara and has led to vehement disagreements over time. A U.S. pullout would mean a reduction in support, leaving an opening for Turkey to push back harder against the SDF. Given Turkey's critical importance to the U.S. security strategy in the Middle East and Europe, improved relations would clearly be the most tangible benefit from a withdrawal.
The Downsides of a U.S. Withdrawal From Syria
Leaving Syria would also carry significant costs and possibly hurt U.S. goals and interests, including its primary mission there: the fight against the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups. The Islamic State has largely been shattered as a conventional force in the region, but it is still far from completely defeated. It remains determined to pursue its struggle as an insurgency, waiting for an opportunity to rebuild itself much as an earlier version of the group did in 2011-12 in Iraq. Over the past two months, the Islamic State has taken advantage of distractions to step up its operations and attacks in eastern Syria. The SDF is focused on resisting Turkey's Operation Olive Branch, and the Syrian government's forces are intent on defeating the rebels in eastern Ghouta, creating breathing space for the Islamic State. And the struggling militant organization isn't alone. Tanzim Hurras al-Deen (an al Qaeda affiliate), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria are also staying active. So a complete U.S. withdrawal would greatly weaken Washington's ability to keep these groups in check.
A pullout would also hurt another major U.S. objective: limiting Iran's expansion in the region. The United States is using its presence in eastern Syria to put pressure on Tehran's supply lines to its allies in Damascus and Lebanon. The SDF occupies major energy-producing and agricultural areas in Syria that Tehran and Damascus are keen to retake; the SDF presence also provides a springboard that the United States could use to threaten key Iranian positions in the country in case of further conflict. What little ability the United States has to shape events in Syria, particularly in future peace talks, is tied to its presence there alongside the SDF.
A sudden withdrawal that leaves Syrian Democratic Forces vulnerable to attacks directed by Damascus and Ankara will damage U.S. credibility as an ally.
The United States has repeatedly and publicly proclaimed that it will not abandon those forces. It has invested considerable time, resources and effort in building up the SDF as an organization — along with direct U.S. ties to it. If countries and organizations across the Middle East, and beyond, believe that Washington could abandon them at any time, they will be hesitant to partner with the United States, especially if there is an alternative ally. In the Middle East, this alternative could be Russia, which could use the pullout to enhance its position in the region.
Finally, a number of regional allies are invested in the continued U.S. presence in Syria. Whether these allies are primarily interested in U.S. efforts to contain Iran — Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates — or are worried about the violent extremist threat — Jordan — they would be greatly alarmed at a sudden withdrawal.
Although the White House said on April 4 that the United States would stay in Syria to fight the Islamic State for now, a final decision on a pullout is still up in the air. The U.S. president has broad authority to order a withdrawal if he concludes that is the right course. Trump has said that the United States has spent enough time and money in the region, and the White House has frozen more than $200 million that was set aside to help recovery efforts in Syria. But his remarks run counter to the January 2018 update of U.S. policy there. Those guidelines advocated a greater U.S. commitment and expanded goals, including the return of refugees, a change of government in Damascus and the elimination of the country's chemical weapons. Without a physical presence, achieving those goals will be extremely unlikely.