[Originally published under the headline: "Danger Ahead: Five Scenarios after United States about-face on Syria"]
The United States is considering reducing or ending its presence in Syria, according to President Donald Trump. In Ohio last week Trump said, "We'll be coming out of Syria, like very soon."
According to CNN, he told advisers in February that America must achieve victory over Islamic State and then come home. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the White House put on hold $200 million that was supposed to be directed toward rebuilding civilian infrastructure and stabilization in eastern Syria.
The abrupt about-face in US policy comes after the administration spent 2017 indicating it was preparing for the long haul in Syria. It said it wanted President Bashar Assad gone and that the US would continue to work with its partners among the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that had been the main driving force behind defeating ISIS.
Here are five scenarios that could develop in the coming year:
Trump is boasting, but the US will remain
The White House comments are at odds with Pentagon policy on Syria. An NBC report on March 30 claimed that US soldiers feel a lack of consistent policy from Washington was jeopardizing the war on ISIS. Trump has always indicated that he was an "America first" president who was skeptical of foreign wars and entanglements. His comments on Syria reflect that.
However, Trump is also enamored of and listens to his top generals, especially Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has indicated that the US should stay in Syria. The question is what Mike Pompeo, who will likely take over at the State Department, and John Bolton at the National Security Council, think about Syria. Cultivating allies in eastern Syria has not only been the key to defeating ISIS but also serves to block Iranian influence, which is a concern to Pompeo and Bolton. It might be that Trump's comments will not result in major policy change. Trump also urged a review of operations in Afghanistan last year and then decided to keep plowing ahead. The administration also wants Saudi Arabia to step up financial support for eastern Syria and his comments might be a way to nudge others to do more.
Iran, Turkey and Russia take advantage of a US withdrawal
Turkey is scheduled to host a meeting on Syria with Russia and Iran on April 4 at which the presidents of the three countries are expected. This is a serious development that has been in the cards since last year when Iran, Russia and Turkey grew closer on Syria policy. They all have their own reasons for opposing the US in Syria. Turkey considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which are part of the SDF, to be terrorists, and Turkey waged a war against them in Syria's Afrin area between January and March of this year. Turkey wants to roll back US influence and training of the SDF and has threatened to launch operations against Manbij, where US forces are based.
Russia wants the US out of Syria because Moscow supports the Assad regime. Russia is also angry that Western countries have expelled some 150 Russian diplomats in the last weeks. The US expelled 60 Russian diplomats in late March in response to UK condemnation of Moscow over a poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer. Russia would like to hand the US an embarrassing defeat in Syria.
Iran also opposes the US in the region and wants to roll back US influence in Syria. It has already succeeded in handing the US a defeat in Iraq by reducing the influence of the Kurdistan Regional Government and placing its own allies in the top of the government in Baghdad. Getting rid of the Americans in Syria would clear yet another hurdle opposing Tehran's corridor of influence stretching to Beirut.
Another disaster follows for the Kurds and faith in US policy
If the US leaves eastern Syria it would be handing over an area that was liberated from ISIS to a series of enemies of freedom. This includes particularly Assad. However, any influence from Turkish-backed rebel groups – which have not proven themselves to be democratic, or provide much in the way of civil rights in other areas they occupy in Syria – would be a disaster for the advancements made in eastern Syria. The US has gotten out of the democracy promotion game, but by walking away from eastern Syria after such investment would show that it does not stick by its partners and allies.
Thousands of Arabs, Kurds, and other groups joined the SDF to help defeat ISIS. They believed the US would stick by them. They wanted their cities reconstructed and the thousands of mines left behind by ISIS to be cleared. They were promised that last year, yet most of the support has not arrived. This has done damage to groups, such as Yazidis and others, which were victims of ISIS and whose persecution in 2014 was the reason the US launched Operation Inherent Resolve in the first place. If the US walks away, it will find it harder to get these kinds of partners back in the war against extremism. If it hands them over to Iran and the Syrian regime, they will understand that America is a fickle partner.
ISIS has already begun a new insurgency in places in Iraq that were thought to have been liberated. Dozens have been killed by ISIS attacks in parts of Kirkuk province and around Hawija. Such killings are now being carried out every few days, illustrating the problem of declaring an area "liberated" and then walking away. ISIS is good at hiding among civilians, as it did in 2010 after the US-led surge in Iraq.
Leaving Syria without defeating ISIS and investing in the area will mean the ISIS tentacles will regrow and begin to threaten the Euphrates River valley again. ISIS moves between Iraq and Syria and feeds off the weaknesses of the two states in order to grow. It also feeds on Sunni resentment against Iran's influence. To remain influential, it exploits the power vacuum and the disputes between the US, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian regime. If the US withdraws or openly signals it is withdrawing, that will fuel ISIS.
A scramble for power in eastern Syria leads to more bloodshed
The US signaling that it might be withdrawing has already led others to seek out influence in eastern Syria. The regime in Damascus is trying to find favor with Sunni tribes in the Euphrates valley. Omar Alloush, a Kurdish official in eastern Syria, was recently found dead in Tel Abyad under suspicious circumstances. He was a key figure in US post-ISIS policy and was working with Kurds and Arabs to stabilize the area. Deaths like his will become more common if the US walks away.
Any rumors or actual US moves to reduce its presence in eastern Syria will begin a scramble for power in the area and increase the chaos in eastern Syria. Over the years, Assad has expertly manipulated the international community to draw attention away from his oppression by using a "lesser of two evils" policy. When ISIS grew out of the chaos of the Syrian rebellion in 2014, the international community began to focus Syria policy on ridding the country of ISIS. Similarly Turkey, which initially was interested in supporting the rebellion, has redirected its focus towards reducing the YPG's influence in Syria.
Any US withdrawal would be a victory for Assad and lead to chaos and victimization of areas in eastern Syria that had just recovered from the war on ISIS. The last thing people in eastern Syria need is to suddenly become the center of a scramble for influence between Turkey, Damascus and other players seeking to capitalize on US flip-flopping. Already the comment by France that it would send troops to Manbij in eastern Syria, and then walking back that statement in response to Turkish anger, show that any US comment can unleash instability.
The US may be in a Catch-22 in eastern Syria. The longer it stays, the longer it needs to stay in order not to destabilize the country. That is the situation the US finds itself in Afghanistan. Trump may have good reasons for wanting to avoid that. But to leave now certainly appears like a choice that could lead to bloodshed, chaos, terror and harm to US interests.
Seth Frantzman is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum