What’s Next for Syria: The Repercussions of U.S. Military Withdrawal
Written by Katie Munk
The United States’ plan for withdrawal from Syria creates danger for U.S. Kurdish allies as well as U.S. dominance in the region. Recently U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pushed the remaining proto-military ISIS fighters out of their last remaining stronghold in the village of Baghouz into one square kilometer (Al Jazeera 2019 “US-backed”).
Thousands of ISIS members remain in sleeper cells across several countries, but the elimination of their last remaining territory signals the end of the ISIS caliphate (Al Jazeera 2019 “US-backed”). ISIS fighters are thought to be crossing the border into Iraq to flee territorial loss disguised as nomadic shepherds, creating a greater terrorist threat for the already unstable Iraq. Iraq posted military forces along the Iraqi-Syrian border out of fear that militants will reorganize along the boundary (Coles and Adnan 2019).
The resurgence of ISIS is more of a threat with the release of ISIS prisoners from SDF custody rather than the militants fleeing their remaining territory. The day after Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Kurdish allies started discussing the release of 3,200 ISIS fighters. The U.S. and Russia believe that Syria should take custody of the militants. If Syria does not, that leaves the question over where the ISIS members will go. If left to their own devices, they may regroup either at the Iraq border, or spill into Europe, which is what most analysts fear (Saad and Nordland, 2018).
Aside from concerns about the Islamic State comeback, other jihadist terrorist groups seek to fill the military void left by demilitarization from the U.S. and other forces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) aligned itself with the Syrian Salvation Government in western Aleppo and has grown in territory and power. HTS most recently released Free Syrian Police officers of their duties and added that they would need to join the new government’s Islamic police force if they wish to stay employed (Ibrahim 2019). HTS is establishing the Islamist government that ISIS is failing to uphold. The elimination of one terrorist group allows another to take its place in Syria. HTS and other rebel groups have been accused of major human rights violations resulting in harm of civilians despite the belief that this last strongly-held rebel territory would be a refuge for Syrian IDP’s (Vohra 2019 “Syria”).
Analysts also worry that the consequence of ISIS defeat and U.S. withdrawal will result in a resurgence of conflict between Arab and Kurdish forces who had cooperated to defeat ISIS during the Syrian civil war (Vohra 2019 “ISIS”). Last year the U.S. and Turkey agreed that the U.S. would withdraw the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the largest component of the SDF — from Manbij. However with the U.S. withdrawal of forces from Syria mean the U.S. relies heavily on its Kurdish allies to propel U.S. interests and are proxy-U.S. forces. So far, the U.S. has not expelled the YPG. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the U.S. that if the YPG is not removed from the Turkish-Syrian border zone then Turkey will expel the YPG themselves. Erdogan additionally criticized the U.S. for their lack of support in creating a safe zone absent of YPG fighters along Syria’s northeast border that runs along Turkish territory. The YPG is defined as a terrorist organization by Turkish standards and as such Turkey wants them removed. Turkish control of the safe zone is contested by both the U.S. and Russia. U.S. President Donald Trump retaliated against Erdogan’s threat by also threatening to devastate the Turkish economy if Turkish troops harmed the Kurds. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support for the safe zone but believes in Syrian control of the territory (Mortimer 2019).
Apart from concerns about the safety of U.S. allied Kurds and deteriorating U.S. relations with Turkey, U.S. relations with Kurdish officials have been strained. Trump’s plans to withdraw the U.S. are making some Kurds feel exploited by the U.S. Thousands of Kurdish lives have been lost in the fight against ISIS and the abandonment of the U.S. and their military support leaves the marginalized Syrian Kurd population vulnerable to a possible ISIS resurgence and also attacks from Turkey (Al-Arian, Sherlock, and Sadoun 2018). In response Syrian Kurdish officials are in talks with the al-Assad regime to fill the vacuum that U.S. forces will leave behind to safeguard themselves against Turkey (Reuters 2019).
Syria and the
surrounding region will have a long road to stability ahead following U.S.
disengagement in Syria. As Russia, Turkey, and Iran all stated their excitement
over U.S. withdrawal (Al Jazeera 2019 “Russia”), the U.S. must be wary of the
rise of this alliance to fill the power vacuum of international influence.
Additional concerns over the safety of Kurdish militias and civilians in the
wake of a possible resurgence by ISIS or HTS are well founded.
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Vohra, Anchal. 2019. “Syria: Civilians face familiar threats in rebel-held areas.” Al Jazeera.
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Vohra, Anchal. 2019. “What next as battle against ISIS nears an end?”. Al Jazeera. February 13.