Once the dust had settled following Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. service personnel from northern Syria, the general-interest press seemed to lose all interest in the country. You haven’t heard much about the place since.
Casual observers might be forgiven for thinking that the nine-year-old Syrian civil war has virtually concluded with the Assad regime’s victory, but hostilities in that conflict are far from over. Last week, Syrian forces and Iran-aligned militia groups backed by Russian airpower executed a successful assault on the separatist-held town of Maarat al-Numan, sacking it and the surrounding villages. It was an important symbolic victory for the regime as well as a strategic feat. The city hosted some of the earliest anti-Assad protests before the Syrian uprising devolved into an international crisis, and its residents publicly objected to the Islamist elements that have since overtaken much of the remaining resistance to Damascus’s rule.
This victory for the Syrian military deprives anti-government forces of a strategic city on the main highway that links Damascus and Aleppo, and it deprives resistance elements of one of their few remaining claims to ideological moderation. Nearby Idlib—one of the last major cities in Syria outside government control—is almost entirely controlled by Islamist militias and al-Qaeda affiliated organizations.
The question American audiences now ask themselves is an obvious one: “Why should we care?” It is, indeed, hard to muster any sympathy for the belligerents in a fight between illiberal autocracies, genocidal despots, and jihadist militias. But this simplified narrative obscures more than it clarifies.
According to Turkey, the Russian-backed Syrian offensive represented a violation of a Trump administration-backed “ceasefire” agreement that Moscow reached with Ankara last year. That assault unleashed a new human tide. Over the previous two months, the UN estimates, 390,000 refugees were displaced, with most streaming toward the Turkish border. More urgently, Syrian government forces have now begun to encircle the Turkish observation posts allotted to them by that agreement. Without warning, Turkish troops pushed into rebel-held portions of northwest Syria to counter the Syrian advance. Turkey reports that at least six of its soldiers were killed by Syrian artillery during a policing operation in Idlib. The Turkish response was swift. Ankara revealed early Monday that Turkish warplanes struck 54 military targets inside Syria and “neutralized” at least 76 Syrian soldiers. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a typically blunt warning to Assad in the wake of the strike, but he did not spare the regime’s benefactors in Moscow, advising them “not to stand in our way.”
The American mission in Syria was and remains multifarious. Containing the spread of transnational terrorist groups is only one objective. Another has been serving as a stabilizing presence to prevent the outbreak of conflict among the many nations with forces on the ground in Syria, some of which are at cross purposes. Anyone who believes the U.S. can remain disengaged from such a conflict must explain why the U.S. deployed special forces and advisors to Syria in the first place despite five arduous years in which the Obama administration tried and failed to keep America out of that fight. Such a conflict will have instantly recognizable regional implications, imperil core U.S. interests well outside the Syrian theater, and directly threaten the security of American partners and allies.
If U.S. disengagement has made preventing conflict between states somewhat harder to achieve, it has also put at risk our mission to contain the Islamic State.
At the end of 2019, just after the Trump administration announced withdrawal from Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve’s commanders estimated that ISIS maintained only about 2,000 fighters in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. But while ISIS-backed attacks on coalition positions continued and anti-ISIS airstrikes were ongoing, this paltry force was “not enough” to make “significant or lasting gains.” The balance has since shifted in this terrorist organization’s favor.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council revealed that ISIS is reconstituting itself under new leadership. The group has again begun mounting “bold insurgent attacks” against both Western and Syrian government positions in Iraq and Syria’s poorly policed border areas. The UN mission’s findings dovetail with the assessment of U.S. Special Representative for Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey, who painted a similarly grim picture on January 30. “[W]e are seeing ISIS come back as an insurgency, as a terrorist operation, with some 14- to 18,000 terrorists between Syria and Iraq,” he told reporters at the State Department. With thousands of new fighters and an estimated $100 million in the bank, ISIS has begun retaking control of territory that once briefly constituted the Islamic State caliphate.
American voters have never been fond of U.S. obligations in Syria, but why would they be? When confronting the threats brooding in that near-lawless state, U.S. lawmakers have routinely led with the reasons why America should not engage in this contest. From Barack Obama’s September 10, 2013, primetime address to Donald Trump’s October 2019 tweets disparaging the American mission, the public is routinely bombarded with the reasons why America, the world’s only superpower, must avoid the Syrian entanglement.
It’s no wonder those voters might be confused as to why those same policymakers have subordinated their objections to the imperative of defending U.S. interests in Syria. America’s political class has never had enough faith in the voting public to level with them about what’s at stake. But Western interests in Syria did not cease to exist. Indeed, those interests seem increasingly imperiled by unabated violence and political chaos in the Levant. If Syria’s trajectory continues along its present course, Americans are going to be hearing a lot more about it. And soon.