Turkey-Kurd Dispute Shows Why the U.S. Should Leave Syria
The Trump administration is trying to stave off a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria, The Washington Post reports, which could begin within the next two weeks. This impending Turkish assault would be targeted at Syrian Kurds, who effectively control the border area between Turkey and Syria, and which Ankara has marked as a terrorist group and a threat to Turkish security.
The Trump administration has offered to participate in a joint operation that would secure a small buffer zone along the border that the Kurds would withdraw from, which the U.S. and Turkey would patrol together. Turkey has rejected this idea in the past, wanting the buffer zone to be larger and wanting to patrol it alone. Washington would do well to let that rejection stand.
Despite the administration's efforts here, the United States doesn't have a dog in this particular fight or the broader Syrian theater. There is no American national security interest that justifies a permanent U.S. deployment in Syria, whether for combating terrorism or maintaining a buffer zone in the north. Instead of redoubling this offer of American military intervention, President Trump should follow through on his 2018 announcement and finally withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
The impulse to act as the official Kurdish bodyguard in the Middle East is understandable, given the Kurds' work in combating the Islamic State in the region. Kurdish fighters were valuable partners in the fight against ISIS, but that history does not commit us to war against our NATO ally, Turkey. Indeed, there is no national security benefit—something that must be present anytime our military is called upon to act—to continue acting as a forceful intermediary between Turkey and the Kurds.
That feud is better handled by regional players with actual skin in the game and the logistical advantages that physical proximity brings to these situations. Being grateful for the Kurds' help defeating ISIS doesn't imply an ongoing moral or strategic commitment to mediating their disputes or spearheading their aspirations for political recognition as a state.
The problems inherent in a buffer zone between the Kurds and Turkey are a microcosm of the dysfunction of the United States' military presence in Syria and the Middle East as a whole. U.S. intervention in Syria failed to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad but succeeded in defeating the growing ISIS caliphate. Instead of acknowledging that this is all Washington could reasonably accomplish and withdrawing all of our forces, two successive administrations have kept hundreds of troops behind to engage in continuous cleanup operations and balance against Iran.
But combatting terrorism doesn't require a permanent U.S. military presence. Removing American forces from Syria, however, would compel local actors to take the lead while not limiting our ability to strike at anti-American activity from a distance should the need arise. The motivating forces behind ISIS and similar groups can never be eliminated, but we can handle the threat in a more restrained and responsible manner without pursuing a military occupation.
Prolonging American presence in Syria needlessly burdens an already overextended military, gives opportunities for insurgents to attack U.S. forces and increases the risk of an unanticipated conflict with Russia or Iran. Neither country's presence in Syria harms our security, and they have invested heavily in preserving the pre-war status quo. Washington should let them have it.
It is unfair to ask U.S. forces to risk their lives for a mission that is detached from broader goals of protecting our homeland, particularly a mission with no clear end-state. Instead of buffer zones between Turkey and the Kurds or indefinite anti-ISIS and anti-Iranian operations, we should fully withdraw from Syria and finally recognize that America is not responsible for (or capable of) solving every geopolitical problem, especially not by military force.
Core national interests—most important among them being physical security—should guide U.S. foreign policy, rather than entrenched notions of global policing. What happens next in Syria is not our military's concern.
Jerrod A. Laber is a fellow at Defense Priorities, and a senior contributor for Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.