Following US policy on Syria this past month has been a challenging exercise. In early April, the White House said the US military’s mission in Syria “to eradicate ISIS … is coming to a rapid end” and news reports indicated that Trump wanted troops out within six months. Then an alleged chemical attack occurred on Douma and the US, in partnership with France and the United Kingdom, carried out a series of military strikes in Syria on April 14. The strikes appear to have been a one-off response and the White House press secretary reiterated that the US mission in Syria “had not changed”: “The President has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible.”
Much commentary has focused on the impact of such a withdrawal on ISIS’ ability to regroup and the opportunity for Iran and Russia to expand their influence in Syria.
One aspect that has been largely omitted from the debate is how a US decision to pull out quickly from northeastern Syria, before any meaningful stabilization or plan for the future is in place, will affect life for people living in those areas. Case studies from Libya to Iraq do not bode well.
Regardless of how one views US intervention in Syria, the US has been the major international actor in northeastern Syria since 2014. It led an international coalition to fight ISIS, its soldiers have fought on the ground, and it has trained and armed local forces. In the process of battling ISIS, civilians have been killed and displaced, cities have been destroyed, and local groups have been empowered. It would be irresponsible for the US simply to walk away without seeking to address some of the key problems that remain–some of them a direct consequence of the fight against ISIS. The fact that ISIS’s fighting tactics caused much of the calamity does not mean that the decisions taken by the US-led coalition did not directly contribute to the situation.
Without proper planning or political negotiations with key local, regional and international actors, there is a real risk of renewed fighting or instability. On April 15, the White House press secretary stated that the US “expect[s] our regional allies and partners to take greater responsibility both militarily and financially for securing the region.” But other countries have not been lining up to pick up the slack and the UN’s relief effort in Syria remains severely underfunded, while local actors do not currently have the means to go at it alone. Does this mean that the US has to carry the burden alone or that the alternative is an ongoing US military presence? No, but it does mean that the US should ensure that it pulls out responsibly with an exit plan that addresses key issues.
Some of the issues are political and military. Chief among them is what steps the US will take to ensure that its two allies, namely Turkey and Kurdish forces in northern Syria, don’t fight each other to the detriment of the local population.
Other issues deal with legal and humanitarian concerns. One is the need to rebuild Raqqa and other areas retaken from ISIS: The US-led defeat of ISIS in places like Raqqa has left behind large-scale destruction and massive displacement. “Raqqa is no more, it has become a minefield,” a local resident told me in January when I visited the city. More than five months after ISIS has been pushed out, bodies are still rotting under the rubble and ISIS-laid mines continue to kill and maim. Local authorities do not have the capacity to deal with the destruction.
The US had recently promised $200 million to stabilize the area, but President Trump ordered the State Department to freeze these allocations. That suspension of aid could be self-defeating and more costly down the line. If the US wants long-term stability, it should act to ensure that the future of the Raqqa region and the civilians who live there is on the international agenda and that there is a plan to rebuild the city and ensure the return of the population.
Another issue is the foreign fighter detainees and their families who remain there. In their fight against ISIS, the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces have detained thousands of ISIS fighters, including hundreds of foreign men. The US-backed forces are also holding in displacement camps about 2,000 foreign women and children who are families of ISIS members. So far, none of these foreigners have been tried for criminal offenses, and several local Kurdish authorities told me that their own preference is to have the home countries of these foreigners take them back. US officials have tried to persuade countries to repatriate their citizen fighters and their families, but so far have had no takers among their allies.
What would happen to these foreigners – men, women and children – if the US pulls out without a plan to address their fate? The Syria Defense Forces might continue holding them but for how long? Already, the US is reportedly paying to improve detention facilities because the local authorities do not have the capacity. Meanwhile, the counterterrorism courts that local authorities set up cannot ensure the most basic requirements for fair trials as there is no role for defense lawyers and no appeal process.
As part of any pullout from northern Syria, the US should coordinate with local, regional and international actors to put in place a plan that responds to three key issues:
- Ensuring fair trials for alleged foreign ISIS fighters currently held in northern Syria either by building up local capacity or transferring them to their home countries where possible;
- Ensuring that prison facilities where convicted fighters serve their sentences meet international standards; and
- Repatriating where possible foreign nationals who have not committed any crimes. This last category would include the large number of children as well as many of the women currently in displacement camps.
Given the close nexus between the US military and the forces holding these individuals in custody, the United States has a strong interest in addressing these issues.
None of these issues lend themselves to easy answers. The answer is not for the US to go it alone in finding solutions. But if the US wants to cement the successes that the international coalition and their local partners have made in the fight against ISIS, it should make sure its exit plan addresses key post-ISIS challenges – otherwise there is a real likelihood that hard-fought gains will disintegrate quickly, with civilians carrying the burden.