By Noah Riley
The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011. It began with the Arab Spring when protestors demonstrated for economic and political freedom. The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, reacted violently to the protests by imprisoning, torturing, and killing its citizens. Since then the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and other rebel groups, have attempted to overthrow the Syrian government. While the fighting was initially about lack of freedoms and a desire for democracy, religion came into play. Lines were drawn between Sunni and Shia sects. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which consists of Sunni Muslims, joined the civil war on the side of the FSA. Hezbollah, which is a Shiite group, joined on the side of the Syrian government. Both sides turned on ISIS when they began taking over territory for their own agenda.
As the civil war continued, more countries joined the fight. A U.S.-led coalition joined on the side of the FSA to fight ISIS in 2014. The coalition included almost every European nation as well as local partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which consisted of Kurds and Arabs joined to fight ISIS in 2015. Finally, Russia and Iran joined on the side of the Syrian government not long after the conflict began.
The fighting reached its peak in 2016 with new offensives from the Syrian government and the SDF against ISIS. Turkey and the FSA launched offensives against ISIS and Kurdish factions; the Russians and the US coalition also stepped up air-strikes in the region. Currently the conflict in Syria is calming down and ISIS has few hold-outs remaining in Syria. The SDF and the Syrian government have an unofficial truce, and the FSA is slowly losing ground to the Syrian government. With the de-escalation in Syria, the Trump administration has seen fit to withdraw US forces from the conflict. However, this decision has been met with controversy, fears of a resurgence in violence, and fears of an expanded Turkish intervention in Syria.
The fight against ISIS has been the common goal to unify the many factions in Syria. However as it stands, ISIS is confined to the town of Baghuz and only has an estimated 1,000-1,500 fighters remaining. A U.S. withdrawal now brings two problems to the forefront of the conflict. First is the possibility of an ISIS resurgence. There are fears that if pressure is not kept up on the remaining ISIS strongholds, it will be possible for ISIS to push back and seize additional territory along the Euphrates. Also, the removal of US forces could damage the relationship that the US has been building with the Kurds in Syria. The second possible outcome is a resurgence in violence on all fronts. As ISIS was pushed back, a zone of American influence grew to take up almost a quarter of the country. Withdrawing now leaves this territory open to more conflict between the FSA, the SDF, and the Syrian government.
Conflict between the two largest factions, the SDF and the Syrian government, does seem more likely following a US withdrawal. Another issue is the role of the Turkish government. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG force to be a terrorist group connected to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, and may push further into Syria to eliminate what they see as a potential threat. In response to this, the Trump administration is considering leaving 200 troops in the country in an attempt to show support for the Kurds. There has also been little communication with US partners in the region. The SDF has stated that it would like the U.S. to explain its plans. A co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SD, has stated in the wake of US withdrawal it will be important to secure the previously U.S.-maintained territory and “put an end to Turkish threats.”  This could indicate the possibility of a resurgence in conflict between the SDF and the Turkish military.
While the decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria had to be made eventually, leaving before the conflict has actually ended or without a plan to keep the country in a semi-stable state could result in further destabilization of Syria and a resurgence in violence. Furthermore, leaving the Kurds and the SDF at the hands of the Russian-backed Syrian government and Turkey with little coordination beforehand can send a message to other actors in the region. That message is that the United States can’t be trusted to see a conflict through. As was seen in Iraq, removing troops before the nation is stabilized can lead to further escalation of violence. The situation in Syria was already incredibly tenuous and the decision to pull out could easily render years of bloodshed to be ultimately pointless.
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