The departure of US forces from Syria serves as a capitulation to authoritarian forces and as a death knell to any hope of democratic peace brokering.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria represents a betrayal of American alliances and undermines the US’s goal of disabling authoritarianism, poses a risk of undermining stability in an already war-torn and fragile region, and defeats US political and economic objectives. His decision cites how the US should no longer be involved in pointless wars with no end in sight. However, taking the US out of the region is a very bad move, and is of poor geopolitical taste. Russia now has no real opposition. The Kurds, longtime US allies, are facing an existential threat to their autonomy. Enemies of the United States now have an open door to undermine our allies’ safety and stability. These enemies, specifically Russia, Iran, and Assad-backed Syrian forces, now have a strong foothold amidst US withdrawal, and are poised to be the dominant negotiators in the region. With US forces gone, the Syrian Civil War and its fate is now in the hands of Russia and the Assad regime – a regime that has been found to have used chemical weapons on its own citizens, supports undermining individual rights, and threatens the existence and autonomy of regional minorities, such as the Kurds in Northern Syria.
“The speed at which Trump has chosen to withdraw American troops also threatens to wreck almost every goal the US has in the region.” (Walsh). For example, on the issue of containing ISIS, President Trump recently claimed one-hundred percent credit for destroying the caliphate. However, with US withdrawal, this effectively places this responsibility of eradicating what is still left of ISIS on the Turks, who by doing this, will inevitably come into contact with Kurdish forces. In addition, Syrian forces loyal to Assad have had longtime goals of retaking the city of Deir Ezzor, which is Kurdish held.
The departure of US forces, and the subsequent loss of essential air cover they provided, will leave Damascus and Moscow with easy pickings in dealing with the Kurds, whose autonomous existence both parties oppose. This can ultimately mean invading their territory, wearing them down with a two-front assault, and finally destroying them with superior Russian and Turkish firepower. This conjures up grim memories of the Kurdish genocides undertaken by the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. A Turkish offensive will also likely lead to a high death toll among Kurdish troops and their families, devastating one of the few regions of Syria that has been spared the worst of the fighting. “Conflict would also likely trigger new waves of migration, further threatening stabilization efforts in Syrian and Iraqi territory which are vulnerable to a resurrection of ISIS” (Alterman).
The US withdraw from Syria also represents a political and economic gift to Assad, Putin, and Turkey’s Erdogan. Turkey now is essentially granted a green light to invade Syria, and the Kurds in the process. Russia is now granted the lack of opposition in the form of the US, to freely support Assad’s authoritarian and genocidal regime. This sounds a death knell for any hopes of an eventual peace in Syria, and as unsustainable and politically stretched US support in the region was, America has had its fingers in a leaky dam in this region for a long time. Because of this, Turkish and Kurdish forces could not fight side by side with America, the essential peace broker between the two, and ISIS could not function with a large-scale US military presence.
American withdrawal from the region marks a go-ahead for the commitment of non-democratic atrocities, mainly the killings and exploitation of minority groups by those in power, such as Assad and Erdogan. Democratic erosion began before US involvement in the region, but without the United States to nominally uphold democratic ideals, an eventual peaceful transfer of power, the continuation of individual rights of minorities and oppressed groups (the Kurds), and the act of placing a tentative guardrail against authoritarian abuse of power, democracy is at risk of backsliding even further. With the US gone, countries such as Russia that have no regard for democratic ideals, while at the same time propping up authoritarian regimes, can project their power unchecked.
This decision has a very good chance of making Russia, of all parties, look like a hero, which is the last thing that US foreign policy wants. This policy has traditionally been tasked with containing the spread of Russian influence in regions which contain US allies. The SDF rightly fears an incursion by Turkey into the region, in which Erdogan has pledged to invade, and now has the green light to do so. According to Ellen Francis, a columnist for Reuters, “The SDF, which is comprised of mainly Kurdish fighters, have repeatedly asked Russia for protection in the face of a Turkish invasion.” This would be a humiliating defeat for the US, having Russia save our allies, and likely boost regional support for Russian involvement.
US withdrawal from Syria is a clear signal of the destruction of democratic values and of the fragile status quo which the United States has sought to uphold. The lack of US presence will not only incentivize our enemies but is a clear stab in the back for our Kurdish allies and pro-democratic, anti-Assad forces. Evacuating Syria ultimately serves as a capitulation to authoritarianism and will further weaken the US’s reputation on foreign policy, the global stage, and its commitment to bringing democracy and prosperity to war-torn nations.
Walsh, Nick Paton. “Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is a Gift to Putin and Assad.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Oct. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/07/middleeast/trump-kurdish-syria-turkey-intl/index.html.
Alterman, Jon B. “The Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria.” The Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal from Syria | Center for Strategic and International Studies, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 4 Oct. 2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/implications-us-withdrawal-syria.
Seligman, Lara. “The Unintended Consequences of Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Syria.” Foreign Policy, The Slate Group, 29 Jan. 2019, http://fp-reg.onecount.net/onecount/redirects/index.php?action=get-tokens&js=1&sid=ounf5ar9uu1it1hgbsono4v3v7&return=https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/28/unintended-consequences-trump-decision-withdraw-syria/.
Francis, Ellen. “Let down by U.S., Syrian Kurdish Leaders Look to Russia and Assad.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Dec. 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-kurds/let-down-by-us-syrian-kurdish-leaders-look-to-russia-and-assad-idUSKCN1OQ18E.
I think the tragedy of abandoning the Kurds speaks to a lack of democracy not just on the international scale (abandoning our allies to authoritarian regimes and potential genocide), but on a domestic scale as well. Namely, despite nearly unanimous rebuke from both chambers of Congress about this action, nothing seems to be capable of stopping it from our end, even as the disastrous retreat continues.
This blog post discussion on demorcatic backsliding of United States influence in a war-torn region and Turkish, Russian, and Syrian offensive dictates the morality of democratic procedures. Mainly regarding the United States support of democracy and retreat of intervention in Northern Syria, or Rojava, indicates a less supportive alliance for democracy in the region; nonetheless, the blog post is almost a contrary argument to democratic erosion, it is also the rise of a new democracy in Rojava which is very interesting to compare. In the USAID research, “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding,” one of the international factors mentioned is the “American nation building in Iraq has embraced a similarly large set of constitutional, political-institutional, political-economic, and even political-interventions.” With the withdrawal of the United States support in Syria and not remaining with their reliable alliance, the SDF, it can be categorized as only a short-term of democractic influence, and simply withdrew those ideals with the withdrawal of US troops, just like the US did in Iraq. Furthermore, this decision encouraged and paved the way for an extreme Turkish offensive that led to an increase of IDPs and refugees, as well as the devastating amount of lives lost in the fight against ISIS and Turkey. It built an extremely heavy burden on the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq with a demographic change and increase in population. For every resident in the governorate of Duhok, there were two IDPs or refugees. This withdrawal created economic instability; however, the people of the Kurdistan Region were very helpful in fostering a safe haven for the ones fleeing from ethnic-cleansing and terror.
We were aware of Turkey’s democratic backsliding; however, I do agree that this decision raised eyebrows in Congress about America’s own reputation on foreign policy, bringing democratic ideals, and its commitment to security and stability in the region that was not yet completely issued. With the regime of an authoritarian rule, under Erdogan’s Turkey, it was interesting to see the Syrian Democratic Forces form a small democratic government, or leadership with gender equality, democratic strategies, and their willingness to defend the land, people, and the greater Middle East against terrorism and autocrats.