U.S.-led military coalition succeeded in toppling the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State, known as ISIS, in Iraq and Syria just this past March. Remarkably, only around 2,000 U.S. troops took part in this effort, a tiny fraction of those deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at the heights of those wars. The key to success in Syria was that the United States worked “by, with, and through” local militia forces, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone was the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
And yet, with a single call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly greenlit a Turkish assault on those same Kurdish partners, whose close ties to Kurdish militants in Turkey had long unnerved Ankara.
Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops that had been training and assisting the SDF as part of an effort to preserve the coalition’s gains against ISIS. Turkey then launched a bloody campaign to push the Kurds away from the Turkish-Syrian border. With the SDF distracted, ISIS, ever adaptive and resilient, appears poised to exploit the chaos. Reports that ISIS militants have already escaped from Kurdish-run prisons have sparked fears that extremism could rise from the ashes in Syria.
The reality is that ISIS and al Qaeda were enjoying a resurgence even before Trump’s withdrawal and the Turkish invasion—ISIS in eastern Syria and al Qaeda in the west of the country. Now, with the United States headed for the exits, the Kurds battling Turkey, and the Assad regime and its backers focusing on other priorities, no force is left to counter an extremist revival. Further conflict will only fuel radicalization, which will once again destabilize the region and pose threats to Israel, Europe, and even the United States. Tragically, a few years from now, Syria will be right back where it was before the campaign against ISIS: suffering from chaos and conflict, with terrorism ascendant.