What is clear is that the decision to withdraw is not the only thing that unraveled the policy. The administration didn’t have a clear goal in Syria. The war on ISIS had become a kind of mission creep into stabilization and Iranian issues. If military operations flow from a political direction, what was the political goal? The United States didn’t help its SDF partners participate in the Geneva process. The United States kept its partners in Syria often at almost arm’s length, asserting that the relationship was “temporary, transactional and tactical.” Yet, at the same time, the Pentagon was training stabilization forces that were supposed to number up to 35,000. Only 20 percent had been trained by December 2018. With one hand the United States was saying “tactical” and talking about a short-term commitment, with another it was engaging in a long-term process of training. The political objectives kept moving and the Pentagon was unsure of the authorization behind remaining in Syria to confront Iran.
The U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria didn’t occur in a vacuum. Other countries involved in Syria pursued their own goals. For the Syrian regime, the goal was to remain in power. It accomplished that by inviting Iran, Hezbollah and Russia to support it militarily and politically. On the ropes in 2015 the regime eventually retook Aleppo and consolidated its gains in 2017, retaking large swaths of the country in 2018 through Russian-backed “de-confliction” agreements and ceasefires. Russia also pursued a clear objective in Syria. It supported the regime and found an accommodation with Turkey in Idlib province. Even Israel, a close U.S. ally, often discussed its Syria policy with Russia because of Moscow’s role in Syria’s airspace. Iran’s goal in Syria is more complex. It was influence on the ground and has supported various militias to build influence from Iraq via Syria to Beirut in what it sees as an axis of “resistance” against the United States and Israel. Turkey’s goal in Syria is also complex. It wanted to first check and then reduce the role of the YPG in Syria, which Ankara describes as the Syrian branch of the PKK. It also wants to make sure the Syrian rebels are not totally defeated and to have Syrian refugees return to areas Turkey controls in northern Syria. Turkey, Iran and Russia were opposed to U.S. policies in eastern Syria, making Washington’s hand harder to play.
Given these challenges, the United States largely pursued its goals without fully taking into account the growing opposition and it tried to address each challenge individually, rather than holistically with a united front across the US government. This points to a breakdown in policymaking and strategy. It illustrates that the Syrian conflict was often managed in disparate ways by different parts of the U.S. government pursuing sometimes contradictory goals. This is a textbook example of what happens when US military and political goals are not aligned. Other countries involved in the Syria conflict followed a model of blending military and political objectives. Washington still has not figured out how its objectives might work together.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the Middle East after ISIS. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.