President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria abruptly changed U.S. policy and caused controversy at home and abroad. Amid the questions about what comes next, it is important to look at the lessons the United States may have learned in Syria. With a minimum number of troops, the United States was able to achieve most of its initial goals — using maximum firepower, new technology and with a successful partnership with local forces on the ground.
At his speech to troops at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq on Dec. 26, Trump thanked the soldiers for their service and noted the United States achieved victories in the past two years, helping Iraq to liberate Mosul and helping to liberate the one-time ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria. More than 3 million civilians were saved from ISIS and 20,000 square miles were retaken. This huge area of Syria, roughly the size of West Virginia, was retaken by arming and training members of the Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) and sending 2,000 U.S. soldiers, as well as using air power. It was also accomplished by building a coalition of 73 countries and several organizations, the largest international coalition of its kind ever assembled to fight a war.
The conflict in Syria primarily was fought by the SDF on the ground with advice and assistance from the United States, as well as U.S. training and equipment. A Department of Defense inspector general report for March 2018 said $19 million had been budgeted this year for the program, a relatively small amount for such a major endeavor. It began as a small mission with air strikes to stop ISIS from taking the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria and to stop the ISIS genocide of the Yazidi minority in Iraq.
Many Yazidis fled into Syria with the help of the Kurdish forces. By 2016, the support had expanded to involve U.S. special forces. Air strips were carved out, and vehicles and artillery brought in to Syria, especially in the lead-up to the battle of Raqqa in 2017. In the past few months, the United States launched Operation Round-Up to defeat ISIS in its last stronghold on the Euphrates river near the Iraq border. Air strikes increased from several a day to almost 40 a day.
Judged by the goal of defeating ISIS, this was a phenomenally successful mission. In Iraq, it was successful because it had huge partner forces on the ground, including hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish Peshmerga and mostly Shi'ite militias. Iraq had an army, albeit one that needed a lot of support. The SDF was created from almost nothing, with backing by existing Kurdish political groups. The United States envisioned training up to 30,000 SDF forces for stabilization that would prevent a return of ISIS. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said only 20 percent of them had been trained by December 2018.
The United States never expected to stay in Syria long term, though the administration apparently did not clearly articulate its goals to local partners who felt U.S. troops would stay to rebuild eastern Syria. National security adviser John Bolton indicated in September that the United States would stay until Iran left Syria, which could be many years. Trump has abruptly reversed that policy — leaving its partners to watch Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime angle to control eastern Syria.
Learning from the Syria experience means articulating clear goals, especially to groups with whom the United States is working, such as the SDF. The United States appears strongest to other nations when it is reliable. The lack of clear goals and expectations in Syria has led to the controversy over U.S. withdrawal, even though on a military level, U.S. involvement in the conflict was a success. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is that next time, the United States should mesh its political and military goals.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.