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Green Berets and their partner force, the Maghaweir al-Thowra (MaT), during a joint patrol mission near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, April 29, 2020 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Howard)

A US Withdrawal from Syria Is a Win for US Interests and Partners

… because it's high time.

Words: Alexander Langlois
Pictures: William Howard

Contrary to popular opinion, the United States and its local partners can benefit from a US withdrawal from Syria. Both have strong incentives to support this policy as alternative options will produce worse outcomes down the road. Washington should consider a complete drawdown of troops in Syria to ensure its security interests in West Asia.

Attention has shifted from Syria and the 2010-11 Arab Spring, but Washington has prolonged the deployment of troops due to inertia rather than the pursuit of a legitimate US security interest. Most importantly, ISIS was territorially defeated in 2019, now forced to operate through small, disorganized sleeper cells in remote regions of Syria and Iraq. The remnants of the group do not pose a threat to US interests, per the US Department of Defense, rendering arguments for an ongoing, uninvited presence obsolete.

This includes strategic or legal justifications. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) strictly targets Al-Qaeda and was always a flimsy legal argument for force against ISIS, which has some Al-Qaeda roots but is a distinct, independent actor. Indeed, the US Congress has not authorized the US presence in Syria, avoiding oversight responsibilities concurrent with its war-making powers in the name of the so-called “Global War on Terror.”

In this context, US officials and DC beltway experts argue America cannot abandon its local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The multi-ethnic and Kurdish-led group fought side-by-side with US special forces to combat ISIS for years. The group often calls for greater US support to secure its territory and governs via its de facto authority, the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES; formerly AANES). 

Stability and Withdrawal

Syria’s northern neighbor, Turkey, regularly targets the SDF due to its connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a Kurdish nationalist group that has fought Ankara since the 1980s. Ankara never supported the US-SDF marriage, creating a wedge in Turkish-American relations. Similarly, regime-aligned forces under embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regularly pressure SDF positions, as was the case with some Arab tribes in the far-east governorate of Deir ez-Zor in September 2023.

Those against withdrawal cite these threats, claiming opponents support “abandoning” the Kurds. Yet, this is hardly the case as a withdrawal and the SDF’s safety and stability are not mutually exclusive outcomes. Rather, the latter cannot be achieved without the former.

While counterintuitive, this reasoning considers US interests and the interests of other stakeholders engaged in Syria. For Washington, it is advantageous to reposition troops to hardened locations while cutting down the US military footprint abroad. This simultaneously saves the US resources for other pressing needs and removes a potential escalation pathway that could cause a conflict with US adversaries, such as Iran.

Shared Interests

In parallel, US friends and foes share an interest in eliminating the Islamic State and securing a more stable, prosperous Syria. Regional actors like Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, and Israel have a vested interest in these outcomes and efforts to advance them. Security concerns are central to their reasoning, even if some are sworn enemies.

International stakeholders like Russia also share these interests. Moscow has worked tirelessly to revive Damascus, holding a vested interest in retaining its naval and air bases along the Mediterranean. It values a stable Syria for its forward operating bases as competition with the West increases in the shadow of the Ukraine conflict.

Assad’s regime also has an interest in combating ISIS but cannot manage its security needs due to state collapse. Still, the regime could be interested in quelling ISIS to remove any justification for uninvited international forces within its borders and to stabilize the country – something it has been unable to achieve given its weakness and the country’s fragmentation.

Washington’s Out

The SDF is a solution to Damascus’s conundrum as a tried-and-tested military force operating against ISIS in northeast Syria. Assad and SDF/DAANES leadership have negotiated a deal for years, albeit with little success given the former’s intransigence. Still, many agreements — from trade in goods and oil across frontlines to Damascus’s forces deploying alongside SDF troops to prevent Turkish attacks — prove they can work together on issues of shared concern.

This is Washington’s out. By encouraging Damascus-SDF/DAANES talks and working with friends and foes alike with an interest in suppressing ISIS, the Biden administration can withdraw from Syria rightly claiming victory against ISIS while ensuring the SDF’s long-term safety.  

Assad’s regime also has an interest in combating ISIS but cannot manage its security needs due to state collapse.

Russia and Iran are already incentivized to pressure Assad to depart from his tough negotiating stance and seek an end to the war. The regional powers and the West can help — namely via greater regional integration for Assad and alleviating some sanctions, respectively. This would permit foreign firms to help with Syria’s reconstruction — alongside assurances Assad would regain access to oil wells and northeast farmland. In return, Assad would ensure some Kurdish autonomy while integrating the SDF into the Syrian Arab Army. 

Many will condemn this argument as short-sighted, offering rewards to Assad for butchering his people. To be sure, Assad is a criminal responsible for unjustifiable murder on an industrial scale. However, the alternative for US officials and their SDF partners is worse, asking US troops to risk their lives in a never-ending, illegal US military presence in Syria and all the poverty, instability, and hatred that comes with it. Worse, the longer Washington delays an inevitable withdrawal — and there will be one — the worse the outcome for the SDF.

Afghanistan as a Reminder

Afghanistan offers a sad but important reminder of this outcome. The US withdrawal from the country after two decades of war was a mess that betrayed Washington’s Afghan partners — but leaving was necessary. The Taliban bought time as the justification for the US presence faltered and former president Donald Trump agreed to a timed withdrawal. Although many refuse to acknowledge it, Washington is speeding towards the same situation in a similar context today.

Indeed, should a US administration decide to leave Syria in a similar fashion, Assad’s bargaining position is certain to harden. The same can be said for Turkey and Russia, two states Washington needs on board to ensure a clean withdrawal and the SDF’s safety, as each actor aims to advance their interests. 

As such, the Biden administration should implement this counterintuitive but potentially transformational plan for Syria. Doing so does not surrender to America’s enemies — Assad is hardly a threat to US interests. Rather, such moves represent a strategic reorientation of priorities and an understanding that the US mission is complete, shifting resources and attention to other pressing issues while helping ensure the safety of its local partners.

Alexander Langlois

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on X at @langloisajl or Bluesky at

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