US Pullout from Syria: A Complete Disaster
President Trump, without consultation with Republican leaders in Congress, announced his planned immediate withdrawal from Syria. If President Trump follows through on his planned withdrawal, it will translate into one of the biggest national security blunders in recent history, will embolden our most dangerous enemies, and will endanger the security of the United States and our allies. A withdrawal from Syria is a betrayal to the forces of good and a great gift to the forces of evil, and it must not happen.
President Trump issued a surprise announcement on December 19 that the U.S. would immediately begin pulling out all 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria. President Trump stated that since the U.S. has defeated ISIS in Syria and he does not wish to leave troops in harm's way, it is time to immediately withdraw for their benefit and safety. However, if one is a student of history and is attuned to current events, it is abundantly clear that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria will almost certainly require a later return of a much larger U.S. military presence and a major war in the Middle East. This war will almost certainly claim many lives in the Middle East, including a high number of U.S. troops.
In the Middle East, there are many moving parts. Iran is the mortal enemy of the United States and is determined to achieve a large nuclear arsenal. It wishes to bring its mahdi (messiah) through a violent and bloody war on the Iranian regime's enemies (which includes Europe), and it calls for the destruction of the United States and Israel in regime-sponsored rallies. Iran has a presence in Syria. Hezb'allah has a presence in Syria. Russia has a presence in Syria. And Turkey occupies part of Syria.
All of these forces would benefit from a U.S. troop withdrawal. Not only is the presence of U.S. troops paramount, but the location of the troops at the al-Tanf base is of especially great strategic importance. According to Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor, Iran cares so much about this military base because it blocks the Baghdad-Damascus highway, which Iran uses to transport weapons to Syria. According to Lamrani, the reason Iran wants the land route "is that it's easier to bring [weapons] across land in greater quantities, and the shipping route is very vulnerable to Israeli interception, and the air route is expensive and often gets hit by Israeli airstrikes."
Even though the United States has been successful against ISIS, it is premature to say ISIS has been defeated. According to a Department of Defense report from April-June 2018, there were about 13,000 ISIS terrorists in Syria and about another 17,000 in Iraq. It is important to remember that when U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq under President Obama, it allowed ISIS to form and dramatically increase the threat to Iraq and Syria and rapidly increase territory under their control, leading to the return of U.S. troops to fight ISIS forces. A withdrawal of U.S. forces now could have repeat consequences.
Turkey seeks to further its attacks on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a critically important U.S. ally. Turkey has also encouraged President Trump to withdraw troops from Syria. It is in large part thanks to the Kurdish-led SDF that the U.S. has successfully beaten back ISIS in Syria. The SDF has been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS and must not be abandoned, particularly when Turkish president Erdoğan recently announced that he plans an imminent attack on that group.
According to a report in Al-Monitor, President Erdoğan threatened to launch a military campaign to oust the Kurdish YPG (which leads the SDF) from areas west of the Euphrates. Currently, the Kurds control about 30% of Syrian territory. Erdoğan said he spoke with President Trump and told him the YPG needs "to go to the east of the Euphrates. If they don't, we will force them out, because they are disturbing us[.] ... Since the U.S. is our strategic ally, they need to do what is necessary." Erdoğan said President Trump gave "a positive response" and noted that Turkey "can start [its] operation on Syrian soil at any moment along the 500-kilometer [300-mile] border, in particular without causing harm to American soldiers ... [and] will comb every inch of Syrian territory until the last terrorist is neutralized." The Pentagon said any unilateral military action in northeast Syria is unacceptable.
Russia praised the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, claiming that it "creates good prospects for a political solution" in Syria. A pullback enables Russia to be the unchallenged superpower in the region and enables Iran and Hezb'allah to be much freer to become more entrenched and dangerous.
Israel will have to counter growing threats from Iran and Hezb'allah without the counterweight of a U.S. presence in Syria, and it will have to study the implications of a U.S. withdrawal. One obvious implication is the likely rapid increase in the arsenals of Iran and Hezb'allah due to the effective opening of the highway linking Iraq and Syria.
In October 2018, Israel's internal security minister, Gilad Erdan, announced that Hezb'allah's arsenal of missiles and rockets stands at about 150,000. Hezb'allah has the capability to strike anywhere in Israel, including rockets that can hit the southern city of Eilat about three minutes after launch.
According to an October report from the JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security of America)'s Gemunder Center Hybrid Warfare Task Force, "Hezbollah possesses more firepower than 95 percent of the world's conventional militaries and more rockets and missiles than all European NATO members combined." The JINSA report warns about how a future Hezb'allah attack on Israel would be much worse than any previous conflict. Israel's recent discovery of a number of Hezb'allah's cross-border attack tunnels into Israel increases concerns about Hezb'allah's preparations for war.
According to a report in Der Spiegel, Syria is engaged in a nuclear weapons program near the Syrian city of Qusayr. The suspected nuclear reactor is protected by the Syrian military and Hezb'allah terrorists and poses a serious threat to U.S. forces in the region and U.S. allies. In a recent analysis of the Der Spiegel report, coauthored by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (and formerly an IAEA nuclear weapons inspector), the authors write: "Some imagery observations are consistent with Der Spiegel's reporting. Although we fully understand the limitations and risks of the following approach, we believe that this site warrants inspection by the IAEA." In light of previous revelations of Syria's Al Kibar nuclear reactor, destroyed in a 2007 Israeli raid, such Syrian endeavors are no surprise.
There are so many dangers present in Syria and the Middle East and so many threats to the security interests of the United States and our allies that can be properly addressed only with continued direct U.S. involvement in Syria through a continued strong military presence on the ground. A pullout of U.S. troops would be a boon to U.S. foes, including Iran, Syria, and Hezb'allah, and would make catastrophic war that much more likely. The U.S. must serve as a bulwark against these threats rather than surrender to them.