Country Risk

US’s Syrian withdrawal likely to prompt Turkish-backed operation targeting SDF, which will seek pre-emptive government deal

21 December 2018
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives for a briefing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC with members of the House of Representatives on 13 December. Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Key Points

  • President Trump, having wanted to curtail the United States' military commitments in Syria since at least March 2018, is likely to have taken the decision without the prior agreement - and potentially without the prior knowledge - of his senior advisers, most of whom were opposed to an early withdrawal and appear to have been 'wrong-footed' by his announcement.
  • The US-backed and predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are now likely to seek a deal with the Damascus that would see the SDF cede control to the Syrian government along the Turkish-Syrian border on the eastern bank of the River Euphrates, with a view to pre-empting a Turkish-backed cross-border military operation. In the absence of such a deal, or the timely deployment of the Syrian army along the border, Turkish-backed Sunni opposition forces would be likely to seek to launch a cross-border ground operation.
  • The withdrawal increases the risk of an Islamic State resurgence in Deir al-Zour province, and removes the US ground-based capability to monitor Iranian and Hizbullah supply lines from Iraq into Syria.


In a video statement released on 19 December, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would begin withdrawing its troops from Syria following what he claimed to be the defeat of the Islamic State.

The announcement from President Trump came after the US-backed and predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) capture, as confirmed on 14 December, of Hajin in Syria's Deir al-Zour province, the last large town controlled by the Islamic State. Trump's announcement was corroborated by the Pentagon, which stated that it had "started the process of returning US troops home". Following the announcement, on 20 December, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced his resignation from his post. The president's announcement also drew sharp criticisms from congressional Republicans, such as US Senator Lindsay Graham.

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