The withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria and the abandonment of the Kurds to the mercy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brings to an end Washington“s involvement in the war in Syria. A failed involvement, lacking in purpose and objective, which could have disastrous consequences for America’s friends in the region.
U.S. President Donald Trump was right in saying that his country has never had a particular interest in Syria, a country he described as nothing but “sand and death,” divided along ethnic and tribal lines, and now a playground for Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Israel.
But American forces didn’t enter Syria to end the bloody war raging there, nor did they ever purport to be the bearers of liberty and justice for the Syrian people. They also didn’t go there—as Israel had hoped they would—to curb Iranian expansionism.
The Americans’ goal was to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) group, which had seized control of nearly half of Syria and used those areas as a launching pad for a wave of terrorist attacks across the globe, including in the United States. The Americans are the last to downplay the dangers of terrorism. The only attack on U.S. soil since World War II didn’t come from Russia or China, but from Al-Qaeda, the Islamist group that spawned ISIS, and that murdered thousands of Americans in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
The American soldiers who were sent to Syria managed to destroy the “caliphate” ISIS had built. However, and with all due respect to the American troops there who carried out precision airstrikes and gathered quality intelligence with Israeli assistance, their success can mainly be attributed to the Kurds in northern Syria and western Iraq. The Kurds, along with the Shi’ites in Iraq, fought ISIS face to face on the ground. The Kurdish fighters in Syria are the ones who waged pitched battles and conquered village after village, town after town, from ISIS until the final victory.
But despite the collapse of the state it established, ISIS wasn’t eradicated as a guerilla force, and it still maintains a presence within the Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq. Its ideology also hasn’t vanished, as is evident from the recent wave of terrorist attacks, including on European soil.
At most, its defeat has forced the group back to its starting point, circa the summer of 2014, when it first embarked on its campaign of conquests in Iraq and Syria: a guerilla organization carrying out lethal terrorist attacks against Syrian or Iraqi army forces and other rivals, waiting for the right time to rear its head.
It appears very little has changed in the Syrian-Iraqi sphere in the past decade. The Sunni population is exhausted from the war, but still feels oppressed and persecuted by the rulers in Baghdad and Damascus, who head regimes subject to Shi’ite and Alawite influence. This sense of oppression and even loathing grew under the shadow of the Iranian presence, which many Sunnis consider intolerable.
As long as the Americans maintained a presence in the area and as long as they supported the Kurds, ISIS struggled to raise its head. Now, however, it has another chance for a “comeback.”
We need to remember that Turkey has never fought ISIS. Neither does it view the group as a dangerous enemy, but rather as, at most, a useful tool to use against the Kurds, and also against Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran. The Syrian dictator, by and large, also avoided fighting ISIS, focusing instead on the more moderate rebel groups he considered a threat to his regime.
The only ones to wage all-out war on ISIS on Syrian soil were the Kurds.
The United States could soon discover, as Israel has in the cases of Lebanon and Gaza, that while it’s very easy to leave Syria and remove the forces stationed there, the Syrian problem, not to mention the ISIS problem, won’t go away. Washington may have to confront them again—perhaps on U.S. soil.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.