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This article by James L. Jones originally appeared in The Hill.

Syria and its merciless civil war is back in the news and in policy discussions, after months of being all but ignored, following reports that President Donald Trump discussed potential resolutions with Russian President Vladimir Putin during last week’s summit in Helsinki.

Until then, the last time Syria figured prominently in U.S. media coverage was in April, when President Trump publicly and repeatedly stated that he strongly favored pulling U.S. forces out of that war-ravaged nation “very soon.”

{mosads}That sentiment is understandable, and it recognizes the political realities of a war-weary America. But withdrawing U.S. forces now could be a strategic mistake that would put at risk our string of victories against ISIS in the short term and cede the regional advantage to other actors — including Russia — in the long term.

The United States has many important interests in Syria that the administration must take into account when thinking through future American posture in the region. First, we must convincingly defeat ISIS and prevent Syria from becoming a safe haven for future terrorist operations. Second, the United States, along with the United Kingdom and France, needs to deter all future chemical weapons attacks and reinforce the global taboo against the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Third, we must prioritize access of humanitarian aid and economic reconstruction to those suffering in the Syrian civil war. Fourth, and finally, we must prevent outside forces that are not friendly to the United States from dominating Syria and, thus, the region or thereby threatening Israel. 

These are interests we share with European and Arab allies who can and should be expected to share the burden necessary to achieve these goals.  

Achieving these objectives will require a comprehensive military and diplomatic strategy backed up by U.S. forces on the ground and inclusive leadership that leverages the weight of our allies in the region and around the world. Deterring chemical weapons attacks will require the United States and its allies to impose consistent and increasing costs on Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad in response to any chemical attack. The previous administration’s decision not to enforce its “red line” warning to Assad regarding the use of chemical weapons was a mistake that further plunged the region into chaos and violence.  

President Trump, to his credit, has used force twice in response to Assad’s ghastly attacks on his own people, first in the spring of 2017 and again in April in conjunction with our allies Britain and France. The United States and its allies must be clear that chemical weapons use is unacceptable and that the punishment we will inflict on Assad will increase in severity until they cease permanently.

To defeat ISIS and ensure that it does not reemerge, we must be able to clear and hold territory.  Allies and regional partners must take part, and play a central role in ensuring that newly liberated areas receive sufficient humanitarian and economic assistance, and in facilitating reconstruction of a post-Assad Syria.

The Trump administration has made great progress in degrading ISIS and must prosecute the fight until the end, but U.S. and allied interests in Syria extend beyond the defeat of ISIS. The United States must be an active leader toward a sustainable diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war and the re-establishment of a viable state capable of exercising control within its borders. To ensure that the future of Syria is not dominated by interests opposed to the United States and our regional allies, Washington will need to maintain leverage and a dominant seat at the diplomatic table.

These goals can only be achieved through an ongoing presence of U.S. ground forces and continued U.S. leadership. In Syria, “virtual” U.S. presence will become “actual” U.S. absence, a condition that will not be in our national interests in the region.

The good news is that the number of U.S. troops required to achieve these goals is fairly modest. Today, an estimated 2,000 American troops remain in a large, strategically important part of Northeast Syria; they are supplemented by other forces from allies and partners in the region. Together, these forces can liberate and secure territory taken from ISIS. They can provide a counterweight to pro-Assad forces and proxies in the region. And, perhaps most important, they are a means of ensuring international leverage toward a diplomatic solution around Syria’s long-term future.

It has been reported that national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are looking to build a coalition of Arab armies to replace U.S. forces.

To be sure, regional states have a great stake in the outcome in Syria and they must do more to contribute to this fight. As the president himself has noted, these allies should be expected to supply money and troops that will be crucial to the war effort. They will need the United States to lead, at least initially. The United States is the only country that can bring together diverse regional nations with conflicting goals and organize them around a common strategy and vision. U.S. involvement also will be necessary for the provision of higher-end military capabilities, including special operations, logistics, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — all necessary ingredients for coalition operations. 

Together, the United States and its allies and partners can work together to crush ISIS and secure a future Syria consistent with American and regional interests. Once these goals are achieved, the United States can safely bring its forces home.

Gen. James L. Jones is chairman of the Atlantic Council and former national security adviser to President Barack Obama. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2007 after 40 years, during which he served as commander of the U.S. European Command, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Marine Corps commandant. He leads Ironhand Security, a consultancy serving the region on security, military and economic issues.

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