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Opinion | Robert Pape

A dangerous blunder in Syria

Civilians flee with their belongings during Turkish bombardment on Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on Wednesday.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, just days after President Trump announced US troops would be pulled out of Syria, Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters there.

Trump’s announcement caused concerns in military and counterterrorism circles, not only because we are abandoning an ally, which goes against the American ethos, but because it could also have dire consequences for the security of America.

The tripartite deal that had been struck between the United States, Turkey, and the Kurds, involving about 1,000 American special forces protecting Kurds, was aimed at maintaining a viable independent force safeguarding American interests.

That policy kept the pressure on ISIS and held Syria’s Russian and Iranian allies at bay.


Turkey may well be a NATO ally, but there is a strong anti-American sentiment within the country that has been growing, mainly due to the US’ working partnership with Kurds in Syria against ISIS.

There are signs that ISIS is regrouping, according to our research at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST). From 2018 to 2019, the number of suicide attacks by ISIS inside Syria tripled. They may have been defeated militarily, but they are far from a spent force — 14,000 to 18,000 ISIS fighters are still active in Syria, according to US military estimates.

ISIS is not the only concern — there is growing apprehension about Al Qaeda. CPOST has been gathering recent Al Qaeda videos posted online and, although full analysis has yet to be conducted, they indicate the militant Islamist organization is also regrouping.

We are talking about sworn enemies of the United States. Enemies dedicated to attacking America wherever and whenever they can, including attacks on domestic targets and radicalizing home-grown terrorists.

The upshot of a US troop withdrawal will be a power vacuum that will crush the Kurds, give Russia and Iran geopolitical wins, and throw open the door to a safe haven for extremist and terrorist groups to plan, organize, and execute future attacks. We have been there before, when we allowed ISIS to form in 2013 with no meaningful opposition. We failed to act on the warning signals then and can’t afford to do so again. Doing so will inevitably mean a sharply greater risk of more terrorist attacks, including atrocities on US soil.


The strategy of maintaining a small force of around 1,000 troops in the region is a low price to pay for such high dividends. An approach, by the way, that has American public opinion on its side. According to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, 72 percent of Americans supported “airstrikes against violent Islamic extremist groups in Syria,” and 58 percent supported “sending special operations forces into Syria to fight violent Islamic extremist groups.”

It is also a strategy that has proved successful, though it has not received the recognition it deserves. For years, the United States has been steadily replacing the catastrophically failed counterterrorism game plan of heavy on-shore military presence with the far more effective course known in military circles as an Over-the-Horizon strategy. For a decade after 9/11, the United States relied on massive ground armies to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, only to vastly increase terrorist attacks in those countries and the West. An Over-the-Horizon strategy balances cooperation with local partners and selective interventions with airpower, US special operations forces, and intelligence support.


We cannot merely walk away and leave an open invitation for international terrorist groups. The only realistic way of preventing that from happening is an Over-the-Horizon strategy. This is ultimately the only workable solution to an endless war while remaining true to America’s core security interests, especially that of preventing attacks on US soil.

Over-the-Horizon has a track record of success. Since 2001, using just such a strategy, the United States toppled the Taliban and kicked Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan; weakened and fragmented Al Qaeda in Pakistan; reduced Al Shabab’s territorial control in Somalia; and eliminated the Islamic State’s operational sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2018.

With the United States abandoning its a staunch local ally, the Kurds, and leaving them at the mercy of Turkish opportunism, who would want to partner with the United States in the future? Not only in Syria but elsewhere when we need local partners?

No one.

Moreover, if we leave the Kurds, now numbering 100,000 fighters, to be annihilated, America is left with only one option to respond to an international terrorist strike, and that is a return to deploying massive ground forces.

In effect, withdrawing from Syria is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and leave America open to attacks at home and abroad from newly invigorated and emboldened terrorist organizations. With our local ally destroyed, America will be left with nothing but the army to act against a foreign sanctuary.


We can never again allow a sanctuary for international terrorists to flourish. Enough of America’s sons and daughters have made sacrifices to ensure that does not happen so they could keep their families safe at home.

If we are to honor that sacrifice, any future strategy must be capable and powerful enough to deny sanctuary to those dedicated to attacking America.

Robert Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.