For nearly a decade, U.S. policy in Syria has been a never-ending mission impossible without realistic goals or the means to achieve them. The decision to abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish-led militia, of which at least 40% are Syrian Arabs and other minorities, was predictable. It should have been clear that after the physical dismantling of the ISIS Caliphate, the U.S. relationship with the SDF would become increasingly fraught.
The SDF did not sacrifice its fighters out of love for America; rather, it hoped to harness U.S. power to help protect Kurdish territory and guarantee autonomy in a future Syria. Washington and the Kurds formed a marriage of convenience to defeat ISIS, but over the longer term there would have been a reckoning over divergent goals. It is an open question whether the next administration, Congress and the American public would be prepared to foot the bill of getting drawn into what would have been a nation-building exercise.
Putin did what the Obama and Trump administrations would not – intervene in the Syrian civil war. Putin won the Syrian civil war, and he deserves its spoils. And what spoils they are – a war-torn society, a ruined economy, bombed-out cities, and millions of refugees. If Putin wants to take on the burden of rebuilding Syria, fixing what his air force destroyed, and brokering peace among Syria’s many factions, then we should let him.
But the idea that Putin’s Syria gambit will allow him to take over the Middle East is just silly. Few, if any, core U.S. interests – halting nuclear proliferation, preserving Israel’s security, preventing terrorist attacks against the homeland, and maintaining the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf – are likely to suffer.
Rather than chase unrealistic ambitions, the U.S. should remain focused on what its core interest in Syria has been since 2011: countering the threat from ISIS. The conditions that created ISIS are not going to go away. But Washington should assume that at some point Assad and his allies will act in their own self-interest – and they all want to prevent a resurgence of ISIS.
More importantly, attacks by ISIS, while horrific for the people of Syria, should not be conflated with a heightened threat to the American homeland. It has been 18 years since the U.S. suffered a terrorist attack that was planned and executed by foreign jihadists. Attacks on the U.S. homeland may well continue to be committed by radicalized U.S. citizens, but that problem won’t be solved by maintaining American troops in Syria.
- Aaron David Miller served as a State Department Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.
- Eugene Rumer is director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
- Richard Sokolsky was a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Office in 2005-2015.