The revelation that the United States has more forces than was publicly known in Syria could prove advantageous for President-elect Joe Biden’s strategy in the country if those troops aren’t first withdrawn by his predecessor. In an interview with Defense One published on Nov. 12, outgoing diplomat and U.S. envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffery, admitted that lower-level officials had played “shell games” to ensure that the United States maintained more forces in Syria than the agreed-upon 200-400 troops that President Donald Trump wanted to keep in the country after his aborted withdrawal attempt in October 2019. Although the full number is still not publicly known, Jeffrey, who is now retiring, hinted that troop levels had been unchanged since October 2019, when around 1,000 troops were estimated to be in Syria.
Recent shake-ups at the Pentagon indicate that Trump may attempt another troop withdrawal from Syria in an effort to cement his political legacy of “ending endless wars.” On Nov. 10, Trump announced he was firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had opposed the quick withdrawal from Syria and other countries. Withdrawing from U.S. military commitments abroad has been a notable part of Trump’s foreign policy platform since 2016. And as commander-in-chief until Jan. 20, he may still act on his political incentives to fulfill that pledge in Syria. But a withdrawal is not guaranteed, as the decision will rely on the personal calculations of the president himself, who may not believe there are enough domestic political gains to be had in order to justify such an effort.
- Trump has avoided deep engagement in Syria, focusing heavily on the counterterrorism mission against the Islamic State, as well as punitive airstrikes against the Syrian government for the alleged use of chemical weapons in 2017 and 2018. When the Islamic State was driven underground in late 2018, Trump declared victory over the group, and began signaling that he would attempt to bring forces in Syria home.
- But the prospect of such a withdrawal was unpopular among Pentagon leaders, including Esper as well as former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who believed counterterrorism efforts could not be sustained without U.S. troops in the region.
- Mattis resigned in December 2018 following Trump’s first attempted withdrawal from Syria, while Esper was part of the team of U.S. officials and legislators that convinced Trump to halt another troop withdrawal in October 2019.
If Trump opts to withdraw forces from Syria over the next two months, Turkey, Russia, and Syria and the Islamic State would rush to exploit the power vacuum, thus undermining the fight against terrorism in the wider Middle East.
- American forces in Syria help protect the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that hold much of the northeast. Their absence would likely cause the SDF to appeal to Damascus and Moscow for protection from Turkey, which accuses the SDF of having close ties to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants.
- The PKK routinely launch attacks inside Turkey. Turkey has carried out multiple major operations against the Kurdish group’s Syrian branch, most recently in October 2019.
But if U.S. forces remain in Syria, the Biden administration will have a larger military footprint than previously expected, which it can then use to pressure the Syrian government into negotiations aimed at ending the country’s ongoing civil war. Biden administration advisers have expressed interest in attempting to re-invigorate negotiations between Damascus and the rebel opposition. A larger military presence than previously known, if maintained, would grant the new White House more leverage to influence that potential shift in U.S. strategy. The Biden administration may also not need to send new forces to Syria if it does decide to become more involved in the country, offsetting some of the political risk that such a military deployment could pose given America’s largely war-weary electorate.
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