The United States made a deliberate choice to depart from Syria. America will pay a heavy price for this unforced error.
The United States has lost its defeat mechanism against the Islamic State. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were not the original counter-terrorism partner of choice. It took years for the U.S. to realize that the SDF were the only capable partners. They will not partner with us again. This betrayal has burned that bridge to ashes. It also serves as a warning for any future counterterrorism partner to contemplate – the U.S. will not have your back in the end.
The United States will face a pan-Kurdish uprising that will further fragment an already unstable region. The Kurdish component of the SDF is part of a regional network that stretches from Syria into Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. We must expect this network to mobilize. Kurds across the region have started to protest against the atrocities taking place. Few Kurdish groups will stand by and watch genocide occur. Once the Kurds mobilize as a people, the region will never be the same. The Kurds may not have a nation, but they can stand up an armed force to be reckoned with.
The United States’ decision to withdraw from Syria has emboldened jihadists worldwide. The return of the Islamic State is now a given. The sole remaining superpower has demonstrated its lack of will to ensure their continued defeat. There is no obstacle remaining in the jihadists’ path. There will be a spike in jihadist activity, from lone wolf attacks to previously unknown groups emerging from the darkness. The global war of terror has just begun.
The United States has ceded the moral high ground. Turkish planes are bombing hospitals, refugee camps, and villages using airspace the U.S. controlled just days ago. Turkish-backed forces are executing politicians and civil activists that the U.S. encouraged. Civilians are not just caught up in the Turkish offensive, they are the targets. The U.S. is not confronting the challenges posed by those who seek to destabilize the world; the U.S. has chosen to sit on the sidelines.
The U.S. decision to leave Syria has allowed a neo-Ottoman armed force to march on the Arab world. Turkish President Erdogan is cleansing Kurdish areas to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees. They will oppose him for bringing neo-Ottoman invaders into Arab-ruled lands. Many Arabs blame Ottoman rule for the backwardness of their countries. Few will welcome its return.
The United States has decided not to be an indispensable world leader. The U.S. had maintained a security buffer between our NATO ally and our counterterrorism partner, and we walked away from it. These actions facilitate the re-emergence of ISIS, as we claim to lead the counter-ISIS coalition. The U.S. has pursued a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but this decision just opened the door for them in Eastern Syria. Despite what our National Security Strategy claims, with this decision, America is no longer leading on the world stage.
By Colonel (Ret.) Ketti Davison,
Director of Innovation and Tradecraft, Institute for the Study of War.