Will US troops actually leave Syria in exchange for hostages?
On October 18, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kashyap Patel, a top White House counterterrorism official, visited Damascus and held meetings with officials of the Bashar al-Assad regime to seek the release of two American citizens believed to be held hostage in Syria. A day later, the pro-regime newspaper, al-Watan, reported that Patel made the visit along with Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens.
Patel and Carstens met with the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk, who is sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. Al-Watan claimed that this secret trip, made in August, was preceded by three previous visits by US officials in a bid to release American freelance journalist Austin Tice and psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz. Although the Assad regime has not confirmed nor denied holding either men, it has laid out its demands. While sanctions relief would be tremendously convenient for the Assad regime during its current economic slump, Damascus is setting its sights higher: a full withdrawal of US forces from Syria. According to al-Watan, the regime refuses to start any “cooperation” with Washington before seeing “real signs” of withdrawal.
While the Assad regime does need US approval to rehabilitate its regional and international standing—and to lift economic sanctions—the possibility of a scenario where American troops fully withdraw from Syrian territory is not that far-fetched—and Assad knows it. The US is increasingly retreating from its long-held role as a global steward and further disengagement from the Middle East would be consistent with this attitude.
The Trump administration appears to see no real value from its involvement in Syria’s complex conflict and its policy towards it can be fairly characterized as strategic dissonance. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to withdraw troops, confusing local partners and raising concerns among regional and international allies. The Trump administration inherited a Syria policy that had a sole focus on countering terrorism and, with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) increasing loss of territorial holdings in late 2018, Trump started to voice his intent to bring the then approximately two thousand US forces home.
Following an internal tussle in the White House, in February 2019, Trump was persuaded to maintain a small, post-ISIS stabilization mission of an estimated two hundred troops in northeastern Syria, as well as another two hundred in al-Tanf garrison near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. Again, in October 2019, Trump temperamentally ordered another withdrawal of forces that was met with a bipartisan rebuke, as it upset a fragile balance of power among competing actors. Trump’s actions allowed Turkish forces to attack US local allies, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara regards as an offshoot of terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In a minor policy reversal, Trump ordered some troops to remain to guard oil fields in the far northeast.
In short, the Trump administration has an interest in extracting US forces from complex war zones, despite the foreign policy and national security implications, as this appears to serve Trump’s domestic messaging, particularly at a time of an intense presidential election season. However, if a withdrawal scenario for hostage negotiations is to playout, dismal consequences are to follow.
The current US policy towards Syria has been largely incoherent, as decisionmakers maintained that they did not employ proper tools to match policy objectives. In other words, US presence in Syria resulted in no direct ability to dictate outcomes on the ground. However, the current US military presence in Syria, as a measure of pressure, serves as part of the Trump administration’s countering Iran strategy. As faulty as it might be, the US military’s placement in Syria contributes to deterring further Iranian entrenchment.
Withdrawal in the aforementioned fashion would likely suggest a green-light to the Iranian leadership to expand its network of militias and solidify its supply line in eastern Syria, where American allies on the ground would be busy surviving the increasingly hostile environment US policy choices are causing them to face. Additionally, this would also mean abandoning allies committed to forcing Iran out of Syria—like Israel—leaving them to do the hard work on their own. While Iranian commitment and presence in Syria outweigh that of the United States’, Washington must rethink a decision that may dramatically cut its already-reduced leverage if it is to follows its policy objective of ridding Syria of Iranian troops.
The biggest loser in this scenario would, of course, be the SDF, who have long been over-promised that they would be protected by the US and are now muddled by a misinterpretation of American commitment. The Kurdish-ruled semi-autonomous region in the northeast will likely be challenged by Turkey once the United States officially declares abandonment by withdrawal. The Kurds will also have to face an emboldened Assad regime, which would seek to recapture the territory it lost throughout the conflict. As the Russians bring Ankara closer to Damascus, Turkey can be satisfied with Assad’s forces return to the northeast, replacing what it deems terrorists of the PKK. Both the Assad regime and Turkey share the odd interest of eliminating the Syrian Kurds’ political future in northern Syria and what remains of American weight in the country.
From a geopolitical competition perspective, the Russians would be happy to see US troops leave Syria; the Kremlin wants to prove that it is a committed and reliable superpower to local and regional actors, particularly at the expense of the United States. In the northeast, the region in which the United States invested the most, Moscow has put effort into building relationships with Kurds and Arabs in areas liberated from ISIS. While Russia may not be able to replace the US in regard to the SDF, Moscow wants to present itself as a mediator and reliable ally. In the absence of a US presence, Kurdish forces in the northeast may be forced to find shelter in Russia’s diplomatic clout to protect against a possible Turkish intervention and to mend fences with the Assad regime. By leaving Syria, the US brings Russia closer to cementing its endgame vision for the Syrian war.
A US withdrawal would allow the Assad regime to access oil fields in the northeast that would partially salvage its economic misery and solidify its power. It would also imply legitimization of the Assad regime’s brutal conquest of Syria and an abandonment of any remaining commitment to political transition.
While the talks between Washington and the Assad regime may be in its early stages and would likely face resistance from the State Department, the Pentagon, and national security officials, Trump may want to secure some pre-election victories by securing the release of hostages and the return of soldiers. This scenario, if played out, would mean making serious concessions that would ultimately destabilize northeastern Syria, put allies at risk, and directly empower US adversaries.