Abrupt US exit from Syria will be a boon for Iran and ISIS

By Manish Rai

In a recent article in Foreign Policy (FP) a reputed US publication reported that the United States is seriously planning to end its military presence in Syria. Citing high-level sources within the U.S. Defense and State Departments FP wrote that, the White House is “no longer invested in sustaining a mission that it perceives as unnecessary,” and internal discussions are taking place to determine the logistics and timing of the withdrawal. Currently, the United States has approximately 900 troops in northeastern and southeastern Syria, in a mission ostensibly aimed at preventing the re-emergence of the Islamic State (IS). Most of the US forces are located in the areas controlled by its main ally Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, such as the Hasakah and Raqqa provinces.  Moreover, since 2016, the US has also controlled the al-Tanf base, in a remote area of Syria, near where the borders of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq meet. The US presence in the base was agreed upon with Russia and is part of a 55km (34 miles) “deconfliction zone”, which US and allied forces patrol. Russia has since called on the US to withdraw from al-Tanf.

It’s being argued for quite some time now that the war fatigue of the American people is increasing and there is a lot of pressure on the Biden administration to withdraw from Syria. Also, Iran is trying to enlarge the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza by attacking US interests in the region. The US troops and bases in Syria have become a convenient target for pro-Iran militias, and the specter of a wider war between the United States and Iran makes their presence even more risky. However, the US policymakers should carefully weigh all the possible outcomes of troop withdrawal from Syria. The most obvious beneficiaries of total withdrawal will be Iran and ISIS. Iran has interwoven itself into the Syrian conflict by presenting itself and its so-called “Axis of Resistance” as an additional security guarantor and main backer for the Syrian regime. Potential scenarios of what could follow a U.S. withdrawal present a plethora of opportunities for Iran to expand its influence not only in Syria but in the region as well. The United States rushed withdrawal followed by the rapid collapse of the pro-Western government of Afghanistan threw the country in total disarray. Likewise, an abrupt exit of the US from Syria will certainly create a kind of chaos especially in Northeastern Syria.

ISIS will be a net beneficiary of the chaos in northeastern Syria. As the recent history of this group indicates, whenever chaos ensues ISIS takes advantage of it. It should be remembered that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are still detaining thousands of IS members and their families in the prison camps. And if the SDF gets too busy fighting for its survival after the US exit then it will be a golden opportunity for ISIS to attack these prison camps and get its hardcore members freed. This will be a major boost for the ongoing ISIS insurgency in Syria and beyond and may herald the dynamic comeback of ISIS. Even despite having a very small force of nine hundred US is still playing a pivotal role in combating terrorism. The Al-Tanf air base of the US is used primarily but not exclusively for intelligence gathering and counterterrorism targeting purposes, as well as halting weapons smuggling operations. If the American presence at al-Tanf is withdrawn, the US ability to conduct operations against IS would either require permission from the Russian and Syrian governments or would place the United States at risk from surface-to-air missiles or ground fire from the Syrian regime and possibly Russian or Iranian forces. Eventually, the US military exit would create a security vacuum on the Syria-Iraq border, most likely to be filled by Iranian-backed militias or ISIS.

Washington’s most loyal ally in Syria is the SDF. Their shared interests include the complete elimination of ISIS, making the Middle East safe for democracy, promoting the empowerment of women, and securing oil and gas fields. The SDF is far from perfect, but surely it’s fighting to build a multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic society in the area it controls officially called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Washington has a vital role to play in ensuring the SDF’s democratic experiment in the AANES survives and succeeds. So that it can be used as a reference point for the success of democracy in the unstable and chaotic Middle East. America’s exit will be seen as an abandonment of its one-time Kurdish partners it going to be a severe blow to the counterterrorism mission and will do permanent damage to US credibility. It will also portray a negative image of the US to its key allies in the region and gradually even the close partners of the US will be compelled to think that Americans can’t be trusted as a long-term ally. It will be best for US policymakers to keep at least a small force in Syria which allows for some modest intelligence-gathering and could serve as a surge point if US leadership decides to put troops back into Syria. 

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