Mona Yacoubian | Senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace
U.S. troops will still be in Syria at the end of 2018, despite President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw within six months. While a recent White House statement noted that the mission to counter the Islamic State was coming to a “rapid end,” Syria’s messy reality—evidenced by the chemical attack in Douma last weekend and pressure for an international response—coupled with the arrival of the president’s hawkish new national security advisor, John Bolton, suggest that the U.S. troop presence will remain through the end of the year. In Syria, the campaign against the Islamic State has stalled as America’s Kurdish partners turn their attention toward the threat emanating from Turkey. Meanwhile, Islamic State pockets remain, with some observers highlighting indicators that the group could be revived. In Washington, Bolton will likely be an influential advocate for maintaining U.S. forces in Syria, tipping the scales in favor of this option by seeking to assuage the president’s concerns. The troops will stay through 2018. Whether they remain in 2019 is another question.
Aaron David Miller | Vice president for new initiatives and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., former U.S. advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations (1988–2003)
Welcome to the United States’ forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the standard for victory is not whether the Americans can win, but how they can avoid losing. These decade-and-a-half-old trillion dollar social science projects, where Washington can neither win nor leave, seem to be the model for U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
So will Syria be the next “infinite” war? President Donald Trump wants out. I suspect over time he’ll have his way, but not necessarily anytime soon. Trump’s no foreign policy expert, but he knows that a limited U.S. military deployment of 2,000 military forces and nine foreign service officers in Syria isn’t going to contain Iran, check Russia, or create leverage over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nor does he want to embroil America in yet another forever war. It’s all about defeating the Islamic State and making sure that he’s not blamed—as former president Barack Obama was for a premature withdrawal from Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State.
Indeed, the fear of being “Obamaized” may well keep Trump in Syria longer than he’d like. In fact, reinforced by his military advisers and the incoming Iran hawk duo of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who may have a broader view of the U.S. military mission there, it’s likely that U.S. forces in Syria aren’t going anywhere fast or soon, certainly not by the run-up to the midterm elections and the end of 2018. And one thing that may guarantee that an early withdrawal will not take place, or at least may chill discussion of it, is the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma last weekend, particularly if Trump decides to go ahead with a tough military response, as he might well do.
At that stage, Trump is most probably not going to be doing much talking about backing down or out of Syria, at least for awhile. That’s the advice he’s likely to get from Bolton and Pompeo. Indeed, though it’s not Trump’s preference, there’s always the possibility that the U.S. role in Syria could expand in response to any number of unanticipated developments that might be triggered by U.S. military action.
Nadim Shehadi | Director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, associate fellow at Chatham House
The United States has effectively been out of Syria for quite a while. It was absent in the Astana and Sochi talks on Syria, and more recently in Ankara, where the future of Syria was being decided by Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. The physical presence of the United States in the region is significant, but its relevance is minimal. While this week we commemorate the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s statue fifteen years ago, the U.S. is still paralyzed by the lessons of the Iraq invasion. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, as Saddam did between 1991 and 2003, and will continue to have a license to kill his own people in Douma and elsewhere. This will persist for as long as we think that it is the removal of dictatorial regimes that causes chaos, not the fact that these regimes have been in place for decades. So, the question is not whether U.S. troops will still be in Syria by the end of 2018, but whether the U.S. presence will make any difference.
Andrew J. Tabler | Martin J. Gross fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C.
U.S. troops are very likely to be in Syria by the end of 2018. The Islamic State is not yet defeated and the mission to destroy the organization continues. While Americans are weary of long and costly wars in the Middle East and beyond, and that trend is likely to continue, a U.S. presence after 2018 is dependent upon the willingness of Middle Eastern countries to bear much more of the burden of stabilization and reconstruction in Syria.
Neighboring countries, whose forces (special and otherwise) are already in Syria, have a major role to play in fighting extremist groups in various areas of Syria, and in stabilizing those areas through a political process to put Syria’s pieces back together again. But wealthy Arab Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also have a major role—to provide support and funds for stabilization and reconstruction in areas not controlled by the Assad regime. This will not only help ensure that the Islamic State is defeated, but more importantly that Iran’s growing influence in Syria and the region is constrained and rolled back. By working its regional allies, Washington has the ability to help them achieve shared objectives in Syria and the whole region.