Paul Pillar

A New Decision to Go to War in Syria

Second, as with anything the Trump administration mentions about the Middle East, there is always the bogeyman of Iran.  And as usual, Iran is described in general pejoratives—the lead adjective on the subject in Tillerson’s speech was “malignant”—without addressing exactly how Iran’s position in, and relationship with, Syria threatens any U.S. interests.  Nor was there any recognition of the inconsistency of justifying a U.S. military intervention that was supposed to be about opposing ISIS by talking about malignancy on the part of a regional power that itself has been opposing ISIS, in Iraq and well as Syria.

Third, whenever there is a U.S. mention of Iran, the government of Israel cannot be far away.  And indeed, Tillerson said, “Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.”  Of course, the United States and Israel have no mutual assistance security treaty.  Nor did Tillerson suggest anything the United States would get out of doing Israel’s desired work in Syria.  He also did not mention that Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East and that any thought of Iran trying to achieve “destruction” of Israel, from Syria or anywhere else, is something between folly and fantasy.

Besides helping to prolong war and instability in Syria, the course Tillerson describes is a prescription for increased trouble within real alliances.  He said, “We must have Turkey’s close cooperation in achieving a new future for Syria,” without mentioning how the client-arming scheme in northern Syria is anathema to the Turks.  So now we face the spectacle of Syria becoming the theater for a proxy war between two members of NATO.

The administration’s new policy is launched with disregard for the role of the U.S. Congress in authorizing the overseas use of military force.  For the past decade and a half, U.S. policy through three administrations has stretched the applicability of Congressional resolutions centered on countering terrorism.  Notwithstanding Tillerson’s words about a continued concern with ISIS, the new objectives in Syria turn the stretch into a break.  The United States is putting its forces at war overseas to try to overthrow one Middle Eastern regime, to confront a second one, and to do the bidding of a third.  None of those objectives involve combating terrorism, and none of them have been authorized as a mission for U.S. armed force by Congress.

It's not clear exactly how this posture on Syria evolved and who had leading roles constructing it.  But it is a far cry from the impression candidate Trump once gave that he favored contracting missions for U.S. armed force overseas rather than expanding them.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ben Nelms/File Photo