The U.S.-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces just finished off the last remaining territory held by the Islamic State in Baghouz, Syria, bordering Iraq. This is a significant achievement, especially as the U.S. presence in Syria will eventually shrink down to 400 troops from 2,000. Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF Press Office, conveyed on Twitter, “as the SDF continue the final push against whatever remains of so-called caliphate, jihadists are surrendering en masse…Between 1,500 to 2,000 fighters and their families surrendered to our forces within 24 hours.”
While the SDF will continue to battle what remains of ISIS, they certainly do not have the tools or capabilities to make sure that those who surrendered don’t rise again. The shrinking of U.S. forces continues to be ill-timed. Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, also tweeted, “Given this serious situation in Syria and the SDF now holding thousands of ISIS fighters and families, the last thing we should do is plan to withdraw 90 percent of the American force. Makes no sense. The SDF needs more support right now, not less.” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress, “What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization — but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.”
In other words, ISIS is not defeated, and ISIS will likely reemerge.
I believe that it is in the interest of national security in the United States to preserve northeast Syria, secured by the SDF, through a no-fly zone. This would be realistic given the organized, disciplined, and representative force of the SDF, — which is willing to defend its territory from Iran, the Assad regime, Russia, and Turkey — and which has successfully done so against ISIS. A no-fly zone, along with some U.S. troops, would allow the U.S. to strategically place itself where our adversaries don’t want us, keep away vital natural resources from Iran and the Assad regime, prepare to respond to any threats coming from Shiite militias, and gradually diminish the need to rely on our problematic partner, Turkey, and its Incirlik Airbase.
I also believe that the U.S. must take the next step to recognize the Syrian Democratic Council as the legitimate governing body of an autonomous region in the northeast of Syria. Just as the SDF is composed of local forces, including Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, and Christians, the SDC is similarly pluralistic. The core idea behind the SDC is the ability to be inclusive of genders, nationality, and religion, without attempting to alter Syria’s sovereign borders. A stable region within Syria, largely free from President Bashar Assad, is crucial for the betterment of those that have survived the near decade-long civil war. Recognizing the SDC will allow Syrians to eventually choose for themselves whether they want to continue to live under Assad or stay with the decentralized and autonomous local government system east of the Euphrates. Additionally, recognizing the SDC will allow them to openly conduct trade relations with neighbors and regional partners.
The SDF, SDC, and the 79-member Global Coalition has taken away Assad’s lifeline by holding on to northeast Syria. The Assad regime is cash-strapped; relieving the pressure now would be a grave mistake. Assad may have retaken large swaths of territory west of the Euphrates river, but most of Syria’s assets are east of the Euphrates. He needs to take them back, and the U.S. presence there blocks him from doing so. The U.S. should hold its ground.