August 31, 2018 | Policy Brief

Mattis Sets Preconditions for U.S. Troops’ Withdrawal from Syria

In a rare press briefing this week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis identified three conditions that must be met before U.S. troops withdraw from northeast Syria. But those conditions will not be met easily. Tension may arise between the Pentagon’s commitment to a responsible withdrawal and President Trump’s vow to withdraw the troops “very soon.”

Mattis’ first precondition is the defeat of the Islamic State, a point on which he is in full agreement with the president. The secretary’s second, related prerequisite is the training of local forces capable of providing security after the U.S. departure, a subject the president has not addressed. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared with Mattis, said that training those forces “is going to take some time,” but did not elaborate.

Mattis’ final precondition, which may complicate matters, is for the Syrian peace process in Geneva “to start making traction towards solving this war.” Since 2012, the Syrian government and opposition have engaged in talks based on the principles of the Geneva Communique, yet progress remains elusive. That document requires the establishment of a transitional governing body with “full executive powers,” an intolerable demand for the Assad regime.

In December 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 confirmed the foundational role of the Geneva Communique while calling for free and fair elections in Syria within 18 months. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry called UNSCR 2254 “a milestone because it sets out specific concepts with specific timeframes.” None of the resolution’s targets were met, because neither Assad nor his patrons in Tehran and Moscow had any intention to comply.

While “traction” has been elusive, if the Trump administration were inclined to do so, it could likely engineer another “milestone” resolution like UNSCR 2254, thus creating a pretext for the withdrawal of U.S. troops while satisfying Mattis’ third precondition. This would be a mistake. In the absence of real progress, the U.S. ought to keep a small force in northeast Syria, where that country’s oil wealth and agricultural production are concentrated. In this way, the U.S. can preserve its influence over the course of the Syrian war, which Iran has exploited to threaten Israel and build a so-called “land bridge” to the Mediterranean.

Mattis did not mention the Iranian threat when discussing the conditions for withdrawal, but in response to a separate question, he said that Iran is “going to be held to account” for its destabilizing actions in Syria and throughout the region, an echo of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s forceful remarks on that subject. Accountability is essential. Should the U.S. beat a hasty withdrawal, Iran has little incentive to restrain its support for client states, terrorist organizations, Shiite militias, and other proxies.

David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.