Editor’s Note: Joe Kent is a retired US Army Special Forces chief warrant officer three, who spent more than 20 years in Special Operations and completed 11 combat deployments. He is also a Gold Star husband; his wife Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent was killed in 2019 conducting Special Operations against ISIS in Syria. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
After Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, pundits, politicians, foreign policy experts and fearless keyboard warriors expressed vociferous disapproval and attempted to portray this issue as a simple binary choice.
The President’s detractors on both sides of the aisle are frantically arguing that we have “abandoned” the Kurds and that without a permanent US presence in Syria ISIS will return.
These emotional arguments ignore reality on several key issues. First and foremost: the nature of our relationship with the Syrian Kurds. The US partnered with the Syrian Kurds to defeat ISIS’s territorial caliphate; the US air power controlled by skilled Special Operations Forces (SOF) saved the Kurds from being slaughtered by ISIS.
The Kurds valiantly fought against ISIS not because we showed up and convinced them to, but because they had their backs to the wall and we saved them. Our interests intersected.
The US has been dealing with Kurdish aspirations in the region for decades – at no time have we supported the creation of a Kurdish state. We have always told the Kurds that we are not going to get in between them and their neighbors. Those disputes predate US involvement in the region, we cannot rectify ethno-sectarian hate or the Sykes-Picot agreement (the 1916 pact between France and Britain, which carved up the Middle East after World War I) in 2019.
I understand the frustrations of my brothers and sisters in arms who fought alongside the Syrian Kurds and feel that we are abandoning them. They want to stay and fight, but in Syria there is no sustainable victory to be had. The President has said since he was a candidate that we would destroy the territorial caliphate and leave. He is fulfilling his obligation to the American people who put him in office. That is who our obligation is to, not the Kurds.
The fighting spirit of our servicemembers is what makes our military strong and reflects the best of our nation, but without sober, pragmatic civilian leadership, this mentality is the essential recipe for endless war. The President, in his own bombastic way, has returned civilian leadership to the military that has been absent for a long time.
The other major issue that pundits are missing concerns the larger strategic fight against Russia and Iran in the region.
Russia threw in its lot with Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Russia needs Assad to remain in power so it can maintain its Mediterranean naval base in Syria. If Assad falls, Russia loses its access to the Mediterranean, which is Europe’s southern flank. Iran needs Assad to retain power in order to keep Iran’s land bridge – a territorial corridor – between Iraq and Lebanon. In this way, Iran can control the region’s Sunnis and threaten Israel and Saudi Arabia.
By focusing entirely on the tactical fight against ISIS and our fondness for the Kurds, we have lost sight of our resurgent cold war against Putin’s Russia and the Islamic civil war between the Sunnis and Shia. But Russia has not lost sight of us.
Due to Syria’s strategic importance, Russia is willing to fall into the same trap it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s, propping up an unpopular regime against its restive native population. Russia could not economically sustain these efforts in the 1980s and it will have a hard time doing so now, but it will take the gamble because of the prize at stake.
When the dust settles, we will have to confront Russia – and the winner of the Islamic civil war may well come for the West as well.
Iran has made this clear to the US since its revolution in 1979 that began with seizing the US Embassy in Tehran. Since then, Iran has demonstrated its intentions by conducting terrorist attacks against the US embassies in Beirut and Kuwait, hijacking airlines in Europe, attacking American soldiers in Iraq and has attempted to strike the US homeland with a terrorist attack.
The Sunni monarchs and dictators keep a tenuous control on their Sunni populace: Each time one falls, terror that threatens the west ensues. The examples of this are recent and alarming. Look no farther than Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt or Yemen. When the strongmen fall the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, ISIS or some other Salafi-Wahabi group rises.
This is an uncomfortable truth because it leads us to painful reflection on the aftermath of removing Saddam Hussein from power, losing nearly 5,000 American service members in Iraq and spending trillions on rebuilding that country– twice. It’s easy to forget we footed the bill to rebuild the Iraqi army after it crumbled when ISIS crossed into Iraq.
The legacy of removing Saddam from power has rightly kept us from supporting regime change in Syria. Assad is without a doubt a bad person but his aspirations are to control his country, not the region, and he has no aspirations to attack the West. He will lease his lands to the Russians and Iran to retain power in Syria.
With the US withdrawing from Syria, the next phase of this strategic conflict will be fought between our enemies, radical Sunnis from ISIS and Turkish-backed jihadists fighting Iranian-backed Shia militias, the Assad regime and Russian mercenaries. This is violence that the US cannot stop but can benefit from, if we have the willpower to let our enemies fight each other for as long as they can.
We have absolutely nothing to gain and don’t need anything from the wastelands of northeast Syria. This is not a strategically important location to the most powerful nation in the world.
The argument that the US should be “staying to course” or some other meaningless emotional slogan implies that we have been on a winning trajectory in the Middle East and the larger global war on terror, there is no data to support that. Our last 18 years of war have not accomplished anything for America; competitors, Russia and China have returned while we bled for our ideological experiments.
This is another reality that we have to face as a nation: To stay the course in Syria means we keep Americans in a position where they can be used as strategic bargaining chips while hemorrhaging our resources until we eventually withdraw and the Kurds and Turks go back to fighting – all while the Kurds cut a deal with Assad.
My wife gave her life for this fight and I spent my adult life in this fight. It is incredibly painful to admit that we have not been successful with so much lost, but to double and triple down on losing strategies dishonors our fallen and our country.
Leave today or in 18 years, the end result is the same. We can only choose how much we are going to lose in precious American blood and treasure and how long our enemies fight each other until they attack us. Or we buy time and prepare for the real threat to our country and the American experiment of freedom: Russia and China.