America’s Almost Withdrawal from Syria


American policy in Syria remains confused, even after President Donald Trump ordered a rapid withdrawal of all combat forces from the country. As the U.S. military seeks to retake all territory in Syria from the Islamic State group, the Trump administration is now trying to stage-manage its exit from Syria’s northeast. To do so, American diplomats are trying to reach an agreement with Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, two hostile actors, while also denying territory to the Syrian regime and, by extension, its Iranian and Russian backers. These efforts also require France and Britain, both American allies that were caught off-guard by Trump’s decision to leave Syria, to support a nebulous American policy that is still forming, and may not have the backing of the president. Needless to say, the Trump administration’s policy process is a mess: Efforts of key administration officials to pursue maximalist goals — denying territory to the Syrian regime, with an open-ended American presence — without presidential backing spelled doom for American policy.

Amidst this diplomatic turmoil the U.S. military and its local partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia in northeastern Syria, surrounded the final Islamic State (ISIL) stronghold near the border with Iraq. The looming physical destruction of the ISIL caliphate masks what has been true for several months: The Islamic State has been militarily defeated. And yet, the group is almost certain to survive as a diffuse insurgent movement capable of launching attacks, such as the recent suicide attack in Manbij, which recently killed four Americans. History also suggests that ISIL will maintain presence in small towns, collecting rents from vulnerable people, and continue to retain some level of support from a small minority of Iraqis and Syrians still enamored with insurgent rule. Without U.S. military support for the Syrian Kurds, ISIL would probably still retain territory in Syria. However, ISIL’s metamorphosis into a rural insurgency probably has less to do with the U.S. military and more to do with the Syrian regime being unable to police and monopolize the use of force inside its own borders.

In December 2018, Trump unilaterally declared that the fight against ISIL was finished in Syria, touching off the final campaign to clear the remaining towns of the group’s presence before the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops. The president’s pronouncement was abrupt and at odds with the advice of his senior advisers. In fact, according to media reports, Trump had been briefed to warn Turkey about the risks of a planned military incursion in Syria’s northeast, where U.S. forces are present. Instead, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump ignored staff advice and his briefing book, and simply accepted a maximalist Turkish offer to take over the fight against the Islamic State. Ankara never had any intention of fighting the Islamic State, and instead is focused on reaching agreement on a buffer zone, designed to push Kurdish fighters away from the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey has since dropped its focus on ISIL, in favor of reaching agreement with the United States on buffer-zone along the border — an area where the Kurdish-majority SDF is dominant.

The U.S. bureaucracy, now, finds itself trying to catch up with a president who had grown wary of his staff trying to “manage up” and ignore his long-standing effort to elicit a proposal for a managed drawdown from Syria. Last April, I wrote for War on the Rocks about the danger of the president’s staff ignoring his wishes, and the likelihood that efforts to craft a policy at odds with Trump’s desire to draw down would eventually backfire. For close to a year, the president’s appointed staff ignored the public comments of their boss and crafted a Syria policy dependent on the United States maintaining an open-ended presence to continue the fight against the Islamic State; to use American control over Syria’s northeast as leverage to try and force the Assad regime to decapitate itself; and, importantly, to pressure the Iranian government. This approach, far from succeeding, set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in its implosion.

In the wake of the president’s decision, much of the commentary has warned of the dangers of withdrawal. Aaron Zelin and Matthew Levitt, writing in War on the Rocks, argue that the hasty withdrawal will have “numerous negative consequences for the United States, its allies, and partners in the region,” including “breathing new life into ISIL, benefiting al-Qaeda’s operations, depriving the United States of access to intelligence about both al-Qaeda and Islamic State, while also emboldening Iran and Hizballah.”

There is no shortage of problems connected to the impending U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, but contrary to the narrative of doom, the withdrawal of the U.S. military’s ground presence in Syria will probably have little bearing on the future of the Islamic State, nor will it interrupt efforts against al-Qaeda in Syria’s northwest. And this whole episode certainly has little to no bearing on the broader U.S.-Iranian power struggle. The real failure is that the National Security Council and senior members of the United States government refused to accept the reality that President Trump was intent on leaving Syria and uninterested in broadening the scope of the U.S. fight to include a nebulous and ill-defined “pushback” of Iran. Instead, the president has argued that the campaign to defeat the Islamic State benefits Iran and Russia. These two countries, Trump has argued, free-ride on the backs of the U.S. military — a theme and idea that the president deeply believes in, whether he is talking about enemies or allies.

A coherent policymaking process, in line with the president’s wishes, would have given the commander in chief viable and clear options to draw down and leave Syria in an orderly manner when he first asked for them — last year. These options should have included hard asks of the other combatants in Syria, designed around a clear and narrow definition of American interests. Instead, the most senior officials in the U.S. government tried to make an end-run around the most powerful person in the world. This is a failure of policy planning, independent of the dire warnings Zelin and Levitt sketch out about the impact of the drawdown on things outside of American control, including diffuse insurgent movements in rural Syria.

Still, as the United States looks back at the lessons learned in Syria, it is important to question the very assumptions that led to the commitment of ground forces in the first place. The U.S. withdrawal is not a disaster. However, the general level of alarmism about the removal of U.S. forces clearly underscores the deep resistance to ending combat operations and the way responsibility for eradicating insurgencies in weak states has been assigned to the United States military. As a result, the near-certain return of ISIL attacks after the U.S. withdrawal will be blamed on pending removal of American forces (as was the case most recently in Manbij), an argument that justifies never-ending combat deployments if and when forces are committed. This circular argument is, ultimately, the problem with concerns about the security vacuum the United States will leave behind — and what scholars should study more closely as they consider the legacy of the most recent war against Islamic State.

Case Study Bias: The Sunni Solution and the Future of ISIL

To defeat the Islamic State, the United States must empower and engage the local Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria, and then use the attraction of improved government services and basic security to undercut the appeal of a group like the Islamic State. This basic assumption has guided thinking about the Syrian civil conflict, more broadly, and Islamic State, more narrowly, since the start of protests in Syria in 2011. It is also fallacy. This fallacy for how to defeat the Islamic State stems from assumptions made about Iraq and the battle against Islamic State Iraq — and the viability of the “awakening” as the means and ends to defeat a powerful insurgent group. The “awakening” refers to the turning of Sunni tribal elements against the Sunni elements of the Iraqi insurgency in 2006, which along with the increase of U.S. forces in eastern Iraq and, importantly, Iraqi Security Forces, resulted in a serious decline in Islamic State Iraq attacks. The conclusion drawn from this sequence of events is that to seriously counter a Sunni jihadist movement, like Islamic State, the United States must turn the local Sunni-majority population against it, beginning with the tribal elements that can be enabled to resist and fight the group. Thus, if the United States withdraws too soon, or gains made with local representative forces are too “fragile,” the insurgents can — and will — return to liberated territory.

The problem with this blueprint is that it rests on a single case study, instead of cross-comparing how other insurgencies have been defeated in the past and the ethnic make-up of the hold forces compared to the populations they police. This narrative also fails to account for the oddity of a group like the Islamic State, compared to other insurgent groups around the world. In general, insurgencies are more likely to thrive in rural areas, where government control is weak and local populations are more spread out and less aware of violent groups operating in their midst. The rural versus urban dynamic will dictate how the Islamic State operates after the U.S. withdrawal and the governments of Iraq and Syria try to monopolize violence inside the two countries.

In Iraq, and then Syria, the strength of the Islamic State and its predecessors stemmed from its ability to project power in urban areas. Beginning with the Islamic State’s predecessor group, the Islamic State Iraq, in Fallujah in 2004, and again with Islamic State in Raqqah and Mosul, the group’s ability to take and hold urban terrain is a critical data point that should inform thinking about how best to defeat it. Urban insurgencies are quite rare because populated areas are better policed than rural areas and urban dwellers are less amenable to taking up arms against the state, even if they share ideological overlap with rural insurgents and are willing to lend moral support from afar. This is easy to understand: An urbanite rarely wants violence in his or her backyard and will therefore resist the introduction of armed conflict in his or her own neighborhood. Neighbors less enthused by the idea of armed resistance can always tip off security forces about nefarious activity, who can then arrest or kill the troublemakers.

For the insurgent, urban terrain offers a clear tactical advantage: The environment helps to offset an adversary’s overwhelming firepower and makes the adversary more susceptible to ambush. However, the rapid surrounding of the city and its placement under siege deprives the group of the freedom of movement typical in its rural and mountainous operations. The Islamic State’s ability to take control of cities, therefore, is a worrisome sign about the viability and strength of the group’s ideology and appeal to a broad swathe of people. However, the group’s hubris also allowed the United States to more effectively kill Islamic State insurgents, hastening their territorial defeat. And yet, as the group is dispersed, it will become harder to kill because it can more easily hide from U.S. forces in loosely controlled rural areas. This creates an interesting dilemma for the United States.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State was able to take advantage of the lack of security to empower itself. Therefore, beyond issues of political and sectarian repression, the group thrives in areas where the state is unable to police itself. This lack of security, then, allows for the group to take advantage of what James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, political science professors at Stanford, refer to as “conditions that favor insurgency,” such as “poverty, political instability, rough terrain, and large populations.” For the United States, this becomes a chicken and egg problem. Specifically, the Islamic State thrives in territory with weak or non-existent security structures, like eastern Syria. An American intervention may place military pressure on the Islamic State, but if a government is toppled or not allied to reassert control over territory lost, the state is unable to ever reclaim control over rural territory where insurgents thrive.

In Syria, the American presence does help to pressure the Islamic State. However, it does not — and cannot — solve the fundamental issue of the central government’s inability to police its own territory. This is ultimately the main fallacy of advocates for an open-ended American presence in Syria. The intent of Trump’s staff — independent of the president — was to use the U.S. military presence in Syria to pressure Bashar al Assad into stepping down. However, if his government fell, the security situation in Syria could actually get worse, in terms of being able to police a large population, and make the environment more inviting for violent groups to operate within. This policy conundrum befuddled the Obama and Trump administrations, and raised hard question about how to size the American intervention to place just enough pressure on Bashar to make concessions, without actually toppling his regime. Ultimately, the American efforts to topple Bashar while keeping the government basically intact backfired. They invited a counter-escalation from Russia, which stepped in to guarantee the regime’s security, partly on the belief that a leaderless Syria would empower extremists that threaten Russian security. Therefore, the American presence is actually tangential to the drivers of the insurgency and it would be wise to explore ways to ensure that urban areas are well-policed, with a functioning central state that can project power and police itself.

Given these factors, Islamic State’s defeat in urban areas and its viability in rural, loosely governed spaces, is simply in keeping with the literature on insurgency. The “awakening” did not solve this problem and, in fact, suffered from the same cycle of urban versus rural control. It also means that no matter when the United States withdraws, absent a viable security apparatus to which it can pass control, the risk of ISIL return to urban spaces will remain acute. This is not an argument for an open-ended presence. Instead, it should be a warning about the second-order effects stemming from intervention, and the linkage between weak states and strong insurgencies.

Turning to the al-Qaeda problem, many of the factors endemic to the ISIL issue present themselves in northwestern Syria. Jihadist scholars debate the links between Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and al-Qaeda Central. However, it appears that HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani broke with al-Qaeda Central in 2017, perhaps on accident, as part of his effort to rebrand the group as Syrian in origin and committed to the overthrow of the Assad regime. The group now controls Idlib Province in Syria’s northwest and, oddly enough, is the beneficiary of the Astana Process, a Turkish-Russian-Iranian guaranteed dialogue to try to end the Syrian civil war. As part of this dialogue, the Turkish and Russian governments reached a ceasefire arrangement for Idlib, conditioned on Turkey’s effort to root out extremist groups, in exchange for a Russian pledge to delay a regime offensive.

Following an agreement in 2017 to set up a series of de-escalation zones in Syria, Turkey and Russia blocked American drone flights over Idlib and efforts to kill high-value targets in the area, according to interviews I have conducted. Therefore, contrary to the widely held assertion that the U.S. withdrawal will undermine American efforts to counter insurgents that, at one point, were affiliated with al-Qaeda, and may now just be sympathetic to the broader al-Qaeda-inspired jihad, the real detriment to U.S. counterterrorism action is two large nation-states that simply deny the United States access to this part of Syrian airspace. Simply put: The Turks and Russians do not want American help in Idlib and are instead pursuing a bilateral approach to Idlib, which also encompasses the al-Qaeda issue, without any assistance from the United States.

The Iran Factor: Leverage vs. Liability

Washington’s myopic focus on Iran has severely undermined the formulation of a clear and achievable Middle East policy. In the wake of the president’s withdrawal announcement, the U.S. bureaucracy has been debating “how” to leave. After debating choices ranging from handing control of areas in the northeast over to Turkey and its proxies to simply leaving and letting the Syrian Democratic Forces fend for themselves, the Trump administration is trying to reach agreement with Turkey on a buffer zone in line with five principles. These principles underscore the U.S. commitment to force protection during the withdrawal, coordinating the American troop withdrawal with Turkey, continuing to counter Iran, and achieving some sort of arrangement to protect the Syrian Democratic Forces from the Turkish military. These goals are in contradiction with one another. The Turkish intent is to use the threat of military force — and, if need be, direct military action — to push the Syrian Kurds away from the border. The American Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, in contrast, would like to keep the Turkish military out of populated areas, and have French and British forces patrol in urban areas with American jets patrolling overhead to deter Russian or Syrian attack. Ankara has argued against this arrangement, saying that it should control the buffer zone itself, without the presence of western troops. The Syrian Kurds, in contrast, have signaled that they will make compromises, so long as the United States remains, but without a firm commitment, the SDF will reach a separate agreement with Damascus and Moscow. These sharp disagreements, particularly between Washington and Ankara, suggest that the two sides continue to struggle to reach an agreement for northeast Syria, despite Trump’s frequent phone calls with Erdogan and the empowerment of men in the U.S. bureaucracy that are eager to reach agreement with Erdogan. Put simply: The current U.S. plan appears unworkable and will fail to win support from its partner force, the SDF, or from Turkey, a country that would like to see its border cleared of said U.S. partner forces.

The American effort remains wedded to an overarching emphasis on Iran and the Trump administration’s policy of using Syrian territory, Turkey, and the Syrian Kurds as tools for a coercive policy dubbed “maximum pressure.”  The idea is that if the United States can reach agreement with these hostile actors, the regime — and therefore, Iran — will be denied territory, and that this territory, combined with sanctions and harsh rhetoric, will put extreme pressure on Assad and the Iranian government. This pressure, in Syria, is still wedded to the idea that the United States can force the regime to make concessions against its own interests — despite years of evidence to the contrary and the open-ended diplomatic support Russia and Iran give to Assad. The Iranian element of maximum pressure is, more broadly, about regime change, and using coercive pressure to try and foment internal economic dissent, resulting in a change of government.

Before Trump ordered an American withdrawal, a key American demand was that all Iranian forces should leave Syria. To support this policy, maximum pressure called for the placing of sanctions, and the maintenance of a small American presence at a firebase in eastern Syria near the town of Tanf to block an overland route from Iraq to Syria. Levitt argues that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would undo the achievement of this approach, arguing that “Iran and its proxies will be emboldened and see their use of terrorism and regional military interference vindicated if Tehran is able to secure a permanent military and intelligence base in Syria and if it is able to take credit — deservedly or not — for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria.” The Trump administration agrees, arguing that a presence in Tanf is a critical component of the broader effort to push-back against Iran and to prevent an overland linkage between Tehran and Beirut. The land-bridge argument is, quite frankly, silly. Iran has other options to ferry weapons to its proxies. However, the broader idea that the United States needs to put pressure on Iran is widely held, but based on a logical fallacy.

If it is true that the absence of U.S forces will embolden Iran, it should also be true that American presence in Syria (and Iraq, for that matter) deters Iranian action. This does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: An American presence gives Iran leverage over the United States and gives Tehran tools to put pressure on the United States. Thus, to ensure that Iran does not kill Americans, the United States actually exercises self-restraint (lest it otherwise risk escalation with a regional power that few policymakers and politicians actually support). The recent history in Iraq and Syria suggests that the Iranian and U.S. governments have a symbiotic and mutual constraining relationship. This dynamic, oddly enough, limits escalation — and undermines advocates of using more coercive tools to pressure the Iranian government. Thus, the U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq actually limits the types of pushback that Levitt calls for in relation to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its shipment of weapons to allied forces in the region, and its efforts to assassinate people in Europe and the United States.

The United States and Iran operate alongside one another in Iraq, where each competes to curry favor and influence with the Iraqi government. During the ground war against Islamic State, Iranian-backed proxies operated from the same bases as American forces. The United States and Iran remain hostile actors, but co-habitation in Iraq — and a narrow focus on ISIL — meant that each side refrained from escalating against one another. Iran, too, had the benefit of being able to hold in reserve the option of directly targeting U.S. soldiers, an action that could have sparked a similar presidential directive to withdraw, or challenged American forces in ways that enhances Iranian prestige with constituencies that value bloodying the United States military. Thus, any U.S. escalation with Iran would prompt a counter-escalatory response — and vice versa. For the United States, the political risks associated with casualties in a war of choice in Syria and Iraq usually prompted caution and constrained tangential action against non-ISIL-related targets. The same is true for Iran, which remains more interested in deepening influence within the Iraqi security apparatus without much harassment from American forces. It is a mutual detente of choice and limits options when policymakers debate how to implement the nebulous policy of pushing back against Iran.

Finally, the logic about the U.S. blocking of the land bridge is also problematic. The notional ability for Iran to truck supplies overland could serve some benefit to the regime. It is cheaper to send weapons on trucks than to fly them to Damascus. However, the Tanf firebase was also territory Iran could target to pressure the United States. For example, in June 2017, an armed Iranian drone overflew a small special forces outpost and fired a missile at a small firebase at the edge of a 55-kilometer exclusionary zone the United States pledged to defend — a fact that contradicts the idea that a U.S. presence deters Iranian action. The United States Air Force then downed the drone and issued a statement trying to defuse the situation, saying that “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them [Iran]” and that the firebase near Tanf was “a temporary Coalition location.” As I wrote with Ryan Fishel at the time, the restrictive rules of engagement placed on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq state:

the United States can only lawfully use violence against an officially “declared hostile force,” a legal authority currently drawn from the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and/or presidential powers, depending on who you ask. Actors who have not been officially declared hostile may only be engaged under self-defense, an inherent right reserved by the standing rules of engagement. Self-defense against such peripheral actors follows a “hostile act” or demonstration of “hostile intent.”

For this reason, the United States military has always been careful in how it describes its role (or lack thereof) in the self-declared maximum pressure policy. In Syria, the military maintained that it was focused on the Islamic State. To seriously increase pressure on Iran, the authorities for the use of violence would have to change, which would require either a vote in Congress, or a presidential directive. Until then, U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria face legal constraints on escalation with Iran, independent of a physical U.S. presence in country. Iran can exploit the American presence as leverage against the United States through the use of low-tech but high-impact technology to harass ground forces, and thereby using the American presence in small vulnerable bases as leverage against a superior adversary. Further still, the constant resupply through airspace the Air Force also patrols clearly indicates that the American presence is not deterring Iran from much of anything. Quite the opposite, really. The ground presence is a navigational waypoint for Iranian aircraft ferrying weapons to Syria — and is a daily reminder about how the airspace in Syria remains congested with multiple air forces giving support to preferred actors.

The Lack of Diplomacy: Failing to Match Ends and Means

Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw U.S. forces in Syria was predictable and predicted. The withdrawal of American forces did not have to be disorganized, or touch off a mad scramble for adversarial actors to fill the security vacuum in Syria’s northeast. Instead, as the fight against the Islamic State wound down, the United States had an incentive to begin to explore ways to negotiate an end to the conflict on terms it was willing to accept. To do so, this required clearly answering an as yet unanswered question: What political solution is the United States willing to accept in Syria? The Trump administration has repeatedly signaled that the goal of U.S. policy is not to topple the Syrian regime. After taking office, the Trump administration ended the CIA’s clandestine arming program, and the State Department’s funding for local councils in the northwest was cut. The president’s dissatisfaction with what he views as a waste of American money was crystal clear and he has said, for years, that other countries should shoulder the financial cost of U.S. combat operations. And still, his staff crafted a plan that called for a much broader effort in Syria, totally dependent on the open-ended maintenance of U.S. presence on the ground.

The U.S. diplomatic effort in Syria is also divorced from the broader dynamics of the civil conflict and based on false assumptions about the interests of the other external actors fighting on the ground. Russian went to war on behalf of its ally, Bashar al Assad, and has steadfastly resisted any effort to remove him from power. Moscow has used military force to its advantage and has launched political talks, in cooperation with Iran and Turkey, to solve the conflict on terms it can accept. For Turkey, the Syrian conflict is now about preventing Kurdish empowerment and resettling refugees in Syrian territory it now controls. The United States hindered this policy and therefore prompted fierce resistance from Ankara, particularly when the president’s own staff in September 2018 announced that the United States would not be pulling out. In response, Turkey threatened U.S. forces and deepened cooperation with Moscow. Now, Ankara and Moscow are involved in a separate negotiating track, independent of the United States, should Washington and Ankara fail to reach agreement.

A more grounded American policy, based on a clear-eyed assessment of the interests of the other actors involved and the president’s guidance, could have prevented this haphazard withdrawal. The withdrawal will inevitably result in Russia’s diplomatic empowerment in Syria. As the most powerful actor in the country, Moscow now has the luxury of working through the regime to dictate outcomes in line with its own interests. It did not have to be this way. In March 2018, President Trump announced his intent to withdraw and gave his staff six months to come up with an exit plan. A narrow, diplomatically focused approach could have sought to offset many of the concerns Zelin and Levitt articulate, including: some semblance of security guarantees for U.S. partner forces, a direct, high-level dialogue to negotiate a mutually agreed-upon political solution for the civil war, and talks about the Iranian presence. Instead, the United States and Russia are now proposing two contradictory plans to Turkey, which can pick and choose between them, knowing that American forces will be leaving Syria sooner rather than later. This is a terrible position for the United States to be in and has deprived American diplomats of leverage, as they seek to implement a rapid withdrawal.

As the United States looks back at the war in Syria, it is vital to challenge key assumptions that have undergirded analysis about conflict and the threat of transnational terrorism. This includes a real, hard look at the American ability to defeat diffuse, local insurgencies in weak states where the central government is unable to control its own territory. ISIL will remain in Syria and Iraq. It will continue to carry out attacks. This is a given and should not be a benchmark for the success of American military action, and a return to ISIL attacks in the near future is not solely attributable to the United States. Instead, the future ISIL attacks in Iraq and Syria should be a wake-up call about the potency of this insurgency and how even very successful military campaigns, like the recent wars in Iraq and Syria, do not adequately address this nagging problem.

The narrative about Iran must also be challenged. A more coherent Iran policy would recognize that the U.S. presence in places like Syria and Iraq actually places limits on the maximum pressure strategy, in that it gives Iranian irregulars the opportunity to escalate at a time and place of their choosing. The United States has the means to attack Iran, but has signaled that it does not want to. This is because the political costs are too great and the financial burdens of toppling yet another government are too burdensome. The leaders in Iran are well aware of this fact and therefore are able to craft policy knowing that there are natural limits to American escalatory options. The United States has tools to counter Iran, including diplomacy, which would offer inducement for cooperation in areas of mutual interests, and coercive pressure where the two sides compete. However, this would require talking to Tehran, making concessions where need be in exchange for Iranian policy changes. Maximum pressure, instead, places demands on Iran that the Islamic Republic can never meet, which actually makes it easier to ignore the United States.

The withdrawal from Syria is ultimately a reminder about the need to make hard decisions about what is actually a vital national interest, and how to reach those goals through force and compromise. There was a pathway to stage-manage the U.S. withdrawal that satisfied the wishes of the president, without sacrificing American gains in Syria. This did not happen. Instead, the United States is leaving and the plans now being slapped together and presented to foreign governments carry little coercive leverage and an obviously disorganized U.S. response to a fickle president. The American war in Syria is ending. Russia’s effort to rebuild the country and end the anti-Assad insurgency will continue. Turkey will remain focused on the Kurdish threat and pick and choose allies in line with this narrow policy goal. The Islamic State, territorially defeated, will scatter and plot its return. As we all await the return of ISIL, or a follow-on organization, to retake territory lost and to fill coffers with rents extracted from vulnerable populations, the lessons learned about the fallibility of American power should inform how we respond the next time and how to leave once the military’s assigned task has been completed.


Aaron Stein is the director of the Program on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: Mahmoud Bali, VOA