Leave Syria, Keep Fighting the Islamic State

Thanksgiving in Southern Syria

The clock is ticking for U.S. forces in Syria. In October 2021, an Iranian-made drone slammed into Tanf, just missing the small row of trailers that house U.S. forces deployed at the spartan base. Last month, an Iranian splinter group managed to sneak a drone through U.S. defenses, killing three in a small outpost in Jordan. Daily attacks from the Axis of Resistance have made life hell for U.S. troops in both Syria and Iraq. The recent deaths of three servicemembers are a reminder of the stakes. The United States has had years to plan for an orderly withdrawal but hasn’t done so. Now, it’s a matter of months, or at best a year, before the United States pulls its troops from Syria rather than continue to risk their lives in militia attacks. If Donald Trump wins the presidential election, he’s likely to make good on his previous effort, in October 2019, to end the Syria mission. But President Joseph Biden might get there first; although he’s sleepwalking the United States deeper into a regional war, he won’t want to keep jeopardizing American lives.

Instead of scrambling, the U.S. government and its partners should prioritize the objective that brought U.S. troops to Syria in the first place: the Islamic State. Some alarmists and supporters of an open-ended U.S. presence have disingenuously claimed that the Islamic State is as strong as ever. Others, including the Iraqi government, have overconfidently dismissed the possibility that the 50,000 committed jihadis in al-Hol could ever again cause trouble. The reality is that the group is currently under control but could pose a serious threat if the tenuous order in northeast Syria collapses.

It’s time for the United States to acknowledge its real priorities and make the hard tradeoffs. American forces are in Syria and Iraq not to fight Iran, but to counter the Islamic State. So it’s time for the United States to remove flashpoints that keep dragging Washington into unwinnable local conflicts and instead invest in sustainable counter-terrorism. As it plans for an orderly withdrawal from northeast Syria and a smaller presence in Iraq, the United States should build on Damascus’ desire to avoid an Islamic State resurgence to negotiate a credible plan for the Syrian government to take over detention centers in Syria where the group’s members are held. In Iraq, the United States should be willing to swallow a hit to its prestige and shrink its military footprint, in exchange for continuing intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation with security forces in federal Iraq as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government. The United States no longer occupies Iraq, and Iraq’s government includes a bevy of problematic militant factions. In this context, Washington should be ready strike a deal that recognizes Iraq’s sovereignty rather than risk losing a crucial partner.



The United States does not have the leverage to dictate to either Damascus or Baghdad, but it does share some common interests and — at least with Iraq — a desire for a deep continuing security partnership. A downsized arrangement can still effectively police the Islamic State — and would remove many of the trigger points that keep pulling the United States into regional war.

Islamic State at Bay

Nearly 10 years since American troops deployed to Syria, the dogged efforts of various governments and international institutions have failed to resolve the lingering problem of the Islamic State. At its peak, the group governed a population of at least 12 million people and recruited tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world. In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State ruled with the active support of scores of locals. It was also locals who suffered the most and who led the counter-offensive to liberate their communities.

There has never been a cohesive or effective approach to former supporters of the Islamic State and to those who continue to profess loyalty to the group or its ideology. The Iraqi government has absorbed millions of non-criminal supporters back into society, but their status remains precarious. Many still lack papers and are unable to move freely, enroll their children in school, or find jobs. Of the Islamic State members suspected of crimes, some were tried, imprisoned, or sentenced to death, while others were able to bribe their way to freedom.

Meanwhile, in northeast Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces — with crucial American support — detain thousands of Islamic State suspects. Among these detainees are many unrepentant activists eager to establish a new caliphate. There are also children born or raised in captivity, some of them deeply indoctrinated. And there are casual supporters or even opponents of the Islamic State who ended up in the al-Hol camp (with an estimated population of 50,000) or the detention center at Hasakeh (which houses between 3,000 and 5,000 detainees) by happenstance.

Much of the current reporting on the Islamic State tends to either exaggerate or downplay the threat. There’s a cottage industry of alarmists who argue that the Islamic State is always about to make a comeback, whether attacks are rising or declining — arguments they use to justify existing U.S. deployments. By contrast, security officials in Iraq express confidence that the war against the Islamic State successfully banished the group and any future imitators to the margins. Never again, they say in public statements and private meetings, will takfiri extremists establish a territorial beachhead in Iraq or Syria as they did repeatedly between 2004 and 2019. Some of these Iraqi security officials seem to genuinely believe they have addressed gaps in Iraqi security forces, and that Iraq’s Sunni Arab community would no longer tolerate another takfiri revival. But many of the Iraqis who argue that the Islamic State could never return are in a domestic power struggle with political factions allied with the United States. Their arguments about the Islamic State go hand in hand with a push to entirely withdraw American forces from Iraq, which would benefit one side in Iraqi politics.

The reality is somewhere in between. Islamic cells continue to strike in Syria and Iraq, and some of the population still supports the group and its ideology. An attempted prison breakout in 2022 revealed the Islamic State’s enduring power. So while the group poses only a small danger right now, it remains a serious potential threat. Existing efforts to address the Islamic State have met with qualified success. American partnerships with the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria and with Iraqi forces have successfully quelled any broad restoration of the Islamic State, although the group can consistently field lethal attacks and commands support in some of the old Caliphate’s heartland.

Countering the Islamic State, Again

The crucial question is: What will happen if and when U.S. troops leave? The American deployment in Syria from the start required balancing irreconcilable interests and had an implicit expiration date, which has finally arrived. As long ago as June 2019, before Trump’s botched effort to end the Syria mission, I argued that the U.S. mission in Syria was untenable.

Back then, America enjoyed relatively warm relations with the Iraqi government, which welcomed an American counter-terrorism deployment. Today, the same Iraqi resistance factions attacking the United States are critical stakeholders in the government. Going forward, the Iraqi government will likely insist on a substantial American force withdrawal, and probably on far more restrictive terms for the American training and counter-terrorism missions in Iraq. A smaller American footprint in Iraq makes all the more impractical remote bases such as Tanf, in Syria, and Tower 22, in Jordan.

Moreover, American forces in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan have faced daily attacks since Oct. 7 — an opportunistic response by the Axis of Resistance to America’s rotten policy in Gaza. For years, the U.S. deployment has become its own end, with troops forced to focus on force protection and the United States sucked into a constant cycle of calibrated attacks. The U.S. deployment could end up drawing America into war with Iran. Against this backdrop, reports suggest that contingency planning for the possibility of withdrawal is taking place alongside discussions with regional actors over security arrangements for the day after.

However, there is no obvious solution for what to do with the Islamic State detainees held in al-Hol and other Syrian Democratic Forces detention centers. Few third countries are willing to repatriate their citizens. Iraq has made an admirable effort to bring home detainees it considered reconcilable. Now, however, the remaining population is made up of hard cases not easily reintegrated into civilian populations back in Iraq. Policy seems to have reached its limits, with the effective plan to detain the remaining Islamic State population forever, without any due process or hope for release.

A U.S. departure from Syria and reconfigured relationship with Iraq doesn’t doom the counter-terrorism operation, but it might make it more difficult. Remote bases like Tanf and Tower 22 are not pivotal to the counter–Islamic State effort. The United States can still maintain counter–Islamic State capabilities and can help the Jordanian government monitor its border from farther afield. But the United States will have to negotiate for the capabilities it wants to maintain in Iraq. The Iraqi government in Baghdad and Kurdish authorities in Erbil still want American help curtailing the Islamic State. In Syria, however, the situation will be less predictable — because of the detainees, who regularly attempt breakouts, and because of the President Bashar al-Assad regime’s horrendous record of enabling takfiri extremism in order to justify state repression.

With the United States gone, the Kurds in the Syrian Democratic Forces will seek the least-worst alternative — a deal with Assad, backed by Moscow. But recent history suggests that Assad will try to erode or even destroy Kurdish autonomy once American protection is gone. The best hope is that the Assad regime will want to control the Islamic State detainee population because of its own security interests. Assad is unlikely to care about due process and humane conditions for the Islamic State detainees, but ultimately the West and its partners haven’t exhibited any urgency about resolving the status of those detainees either.

The End of an Impossible Mission

Once U.S. forces leave their bases in Syria, the United States and its partners will need a new strategy to contain and manage the Islamic State threat. This involves finding ways to continue the limited intelligence sharing and other logistical support that will enable Iraqi forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces to strike active Islamic State cells. It also means securing a deal that maintains security at al-Hol and Hasakeh. Some of the functions of Operation Inherent Resolve could shift under the umbrella of the NATO mission in Iraq, which is less politically problematic for Iraqis.

The Syrian Democratic Forces still value their partnership with America but also want to survive. As a result, they are hedging, exploring possible deals with the Assad regime and the Russians that might enable continuing Kurdish autonomy and, most importantly, protection from Turkey. As distasteful as it is, the United States should encourage such a deal and offer inducements. It won’t be able to protect the Syrian Democratic Force’s autonomous Kurdish statelet from beyond the horizon, but it can help secure more limited goals.

Washington’s primary interest is to prevent an Islamic State resurgence and to be in a position to independently monitor future developments that threaten U.S. interests. That means at a minimum, intelligence sharing and some collaboration with Iraqi security and counter-terrorism forces must be preserved. Ideally, it would include the survival, in some form, of the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria, which could serve as a remote partner for the United States.

But Washington has lost what little leverage it had with the Assad regime. Before Oct. 7, the United States could have offered a deal to Assad — a departure of U.S. troops from Syria in exchange for a credible Syrian plan to take over the detention of Islamic State suspects, perhaps with Russian oversight or monitoring, along with a role for a still-autonomous Kurdish-run political entity. Now, however, the United States appears on the verge of being forced out of northeast Syria, and perhaps even from Iraq, under pressure from Axis of Resistance attacks. As a result, the Assad regime has little incentive to relent on Kurdish autonomy.

The United States can still offer inducements in exchange for a Syrian commitment on Islamic State detainees: an orderly timed withdrawal, cash payments, or even an agreement in principle to reduce U.S. counterstrikes if Assad upheld his end of the bargain. The United States can also exert some limited spoiler power from beyond the horizon: threatening to strike Syrian government targets if the Assad regime lets Islamic State members go free or persecutes Kurds. But this leverage is weak at best; American forces are leaving for reasons that have everything to do with American security interests. Once U.S. forces are gone, Syria will be free to pursue its own national interests in its sovereign territory — interests that will overlap with America’s when it comes to countering the Islamic State but not on other issues, including Kurdish autonomy.

In Iraq, the United States enjoys far more options, along with the support of important stakeholders in Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and some among the panoply of security forces. Many Iraqis consider the U.S. presence a necessary counterweight against Iranian interference. This means they don’t want a full U.S. withdrawal unless there’s a concomitant decrease in Iranian influence. A still greater share of Iraqis want America’s technical help in monitoring and fighting the Islamic State. The United States enjoys a tight partnership with Iraqi Kurds, who are likely to always welcome U.S. deployments in the Kurdistan region. Baghdad, in turn, would hesitate to force an open rupture, as this would lead the United States to fully relocate its intelligence and counter-terrorism operations to Iraqi Kurdistan, working with the Kurdish Peshmerga (military) and Asayish (intelligence) while downgrading contacts with the Iraqi central government. Domestic political tensions drive much of the Iraqi movement to expel U.S. forces — but the same rivalries are likely to guarantee a common interest in preserving U.S.-Iraqi cooperation.

Baghdad enjoys decent relations with Damascus and would be loath to see a mass breakout of Islamic State detainees. Baghdad and Damascus, with American support (and an American stake secured via its preferred local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces), could cooperate to secure the al-Hol camp and the detention centers in Hasakeh and elsewhere. This would be a transactional bargain, driven solely by a common interest in quashing the Islamic State, but it would be more secure than the current precarious status quo. If the United States can thread the needle in its relationship with Iraq — and if Washington is willing to swallow the hit to American prestige — it might just preserve its core counter-Islamic State mission while shrinking the U.S. military footprint.


Thanassis Cambanis is director of Century International, a progressive nonpartisan think tank headquartered in New York City. He has written multiple books about the Middle East and is currently writing a history of the Iraq war.

Image: Photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Connor