Eight years of conflict has decimated Syria’s infrastructure and shredded the social fabric. But, intelligence officials expect ISIS to be “fully ejected” from Syrian territory in the next two to four weeks. Mona Yacoubian argues that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal could lead to an ISIS resurgence and examines the complex regional situation.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley (host):    Yesterday in a hearing the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats describing, in part, the situation in Syria and Afghanistan, and the situation with the Islamic State:

Dan Coats:    While ISIS is nearing territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, the group has returned to its guerilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide. ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Tim Farley:    Let us get an update on the situation there. Mona Yacoubian joined the U.S. Institute of Peace after being deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East Bureau at USAID a few years ago. She is a senior policy scholar at USIP. The Twitter handle is @USIP and she is here. Glad to have the United States Institute of Peace back with us because they weren't able to be here during the shutdown. Mona, welcome back. Thanks for being here.

Mona Yacoubian:    Thanks so much. It's great to be with you.

Tim Farley:    Was anything that you heard from the intelligence officials yesterday a surprise?

Mona Yacoubian:    No, not at all. I mean, I think we are seeing great gains being made on the ground against ISIS. In fact, the estimates are that they could be fully ejected from Syrian territory as soon as the next two to four weeks. But intelligence officials also caution, this does not constitute an enduring victory. I think they are quite well poised in terms of underscoring that ISIS can really resurge as a fairly potent insurgency in the coming weeks and months.

Tim Farley:    Is it safe for the U.S. to withdraw?

Mona Yacoubian:    Not in a precipitous manner, no. I think that, as has been stated, there's still work to be done in terms of stabilizing these areas, insuring that a U.S. withdrawal does not leave a vacuum or chaos in its wake.

Tim Farley:    If the U.S. withdraws, is there anything other than ISIS to fill the vacuum?

Mona Yacoubian:    Oh, yeah. There a quite a few players chomping at the bit. The Syrian regime, perhaps at the top of the list as Bashar al-Assad has vowed to regain all of Syrian territory and he is backed by Russia and Iran who may well be there as well to support him in that effort. You also have Turkey talking about the need to create a buffer zone in the northeastern part of Syria, which is now currently being held by the Kurds.

Tim Farley:    To that point, there are concerns that President Trump made the decision to withdraw from Syria, in part or maybe in whole, because of a call that he had with President Erdogan of Turkey who is concerned about the Kurds in Syria. Give us a sense of how much influence President Erdogan seems to have on President Trump.

Mona Yacoubian:    Well, it's not clear because it is true that it is reportedly a call between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Trump that prompted President Trump's tweet on December 19th that we were withdrawing from Syria now, sort of within a matter of days. That, of course, has now been very much walked back and there is no clear timeline in terms of U.S. withdrawal. I think the Turks have tried to convince the president that they can do the rest of the cleanup against ISIS and they are poised to be able to hold that territory and keep it safe, but I think the issues there are whether or not in fact Turkey has the capacity to do that. That is not at all clear.

Tim Farley:    Again, Mona Yacoubian with us, a senior policy scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. I'm trying to put in my mind the timeline, Mona, and I'm thinking to myself I believe the uprising — the insurgency against President Assad, its beginning and where we are now —this is approaching, if not exceeding, the amount of time that World War II was fought. I wonder how the people of Syria are holding up under all this tremendous violence and how the Assad regime holds up after all this time.

Mona Yacoubian:    Well, I think, we're coming to the eight year mark in March for this conflict, it has exacted an enormous humanitarian toll. I mean, it's estimated that nearly half a million Syrians, primarily civilians, have perished in the violence. This is a country whose infrastructure and economy have been devastated. Its social fabric has been basically shred apart. So, Syria has quite a long way to come back in terms of being a place that is stable and safe, and peaceful.

Tim Farley:    I wonder if you could also comment on something else that was mentioned during this hearing yesterday, and that is that they believe, that is both Dan Coats who is Director of National Intelligence and his cohorts, they believe that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. They do not believe at this point that that is a threat. What was your assessment of their assessment of Iran?

Mona Yacoubian:    I mean, I think that sounds right. I think our intelligence apparatus, I think, is tracking very closely what Iran is doing with respect to the nuclear accord. By all accounts, both ours as well as European allies, Iran continues to uphold its agreement, its end of the bargain if you will. That doesn't though detract from other concerns about Iranian behavior in the region. It's destabilizing role, in particular, in Syria for example where Iran is fairly well entrenched militarily. This is causing great concern to Israel in particular.

Tim Farley:    Not to necessarily go too far, but I think Afghanistan is close enough, especially considering what we heard yesterday from people like Senator Mitch McConnell who I'm gonna let you hear a little bit of what he said on the floor of the Senate yesterday. He doesn't often get involved in policy, but here Senator McConnell speaking yesterday.

Mitch McConnell:    So, Mr. President,  we've seen the costs of a precipitous withdrawal before in Iraq, and in Afghanistan we have seen the downsides of telling the enemy they can just wait us out, we'll be gone on date that's certain. So, my memo would also urge contended commitment from the U.S. military and our partners until we have set the conditions for the enduring defeat of these vial terrorists.

Tim Farley:    That is Senator McConnell. Mona Yacoubian, your thoughts on what the administration is suggesting we do with Afghanistan and the actual situation there.

Mona Yacoubian:    Well, I think, again, I think that we are looking for an opening. This is a war that also dragged on for many years. I think it's the longest running war that we've been engaged in in history. And so, I think there is a search for a solution. There are early talks with the Taliban, whether those in fact yield peace I think is still a very big question. But I think Senator McConnell's comments, I mean, there's not a lot of bipartisan agreement in Washington these days, but I think, at least in the foreign policy establishment, there is agreement on both sides of the aisle of the need to be very careful about a precipitous withdrawal whether from Syria or Afghanistan in the fear of leaving chaos and instability in its wake.

Tim Farley:    In other words, if I can restate it, I would look at it, there's bipartisan agreement that the United States should get out of Afghanistan at some point, but there has to be some work and some agreement on the conditions under which the U.S. would leave; therefore, we don't want to do it just in a willy-nilly way, like, alright, we're leaving because we want to leave.

Mona Yacoubian:    I think you stated it quite well, Tim. I think that's exactly right. No one's saying we need to be in these places forever. I think what many in the foreign policy establishment are arguing, though, is that it is important that these withdrawals occur in an orderly fashion, that they are based on conditions on the ground, and that they are done in a way where, again, we don't leave the places more unstable, but rather on a path to greater stability.

Tim Farley:    Just a quick question about Israel's role in all of this. Of course, they have another election coming up, and I wonder how much you think that politics as well as international policy might be playing into things like their operations in Syria that were aimed at Iran.

Mona Yacoubian:    I think Israel's concerns about Iran are longstanding in Syria. I mean, we've seen over the last two years, the Israelis have noted publicly that they have undertaken 200 attacks against Iranian targets. Whether the pressure to do more is upped in view of an upcoming election, I think, is an open question. But I think Israel's concerns with respect to Iran and Syria are enduring ones that have less to do with political timelines and I think more to do with their longstanding national security imperatives.

Tim Farley:    Mona Yacoubian, good to have you back. Thanks for being here today.

Mona Yacoubian:    Thank so much for having me.

Tim Farley:    That is Mona Yacoubian who is a senior policy scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. A little bit on Syria, Afghanistan, and that region of the world, especially in the context of yesterday's briefing by intelligence officials on what's going on on the ground there. The Twitter handle is @USIP.

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