Syria Could Be Washington's Next Big Foreign Policy Failure

Members of Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army police forces patrol in Azaz, Syria January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Washington has attempted to juggle inconsistent policies throughout the Syrian civil war. Attempting to stay after the Islamic State’s defeat would be even more foolish.

President Donald Trump criticized candidate Hillary Clinton for her interventionist tendencies. Now he plans to maintain U.S. forces amid battling Kurds, Turks, Russians, Iranians and contending Syrian factions. Washington’s policy is frankly mad. Having attained its primary objective, defeating the Islamic State, or ISIS, the Trump administration should wrap up American operations in Syria.

As a superpower the United States has interests all over, but few of them are important, let alone vital. Syria is peripheral to America economically and militarily. It is a humanitarian tragedy, but the United States has remained aloof from worse conflicts. Although the Assad government is odious, the country’s civil war featured numerous murderous, undemocratic, radical and otherwise undesirable factions.

President Barack Obama resisted the temptation to intervene directly in the Syrian imbroglio. In contrast, President Trump launched airstrikes against the Assad government. He quadrupled the number of U.S. troops to about two thousand. Moreover, reported Reuters, “U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia.” Now the president is going all in, planning an extended occupation and expansive nation-building program, and risking conflict with multiple antagonists.

Some analysts have even less realistic ambitions. Declared the Washington Post: “The United States cannot prevent a resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, prevent Iran from building bases across Syria, or end a civil war that has sent millions of refugees toward Europe without maintaining control over forces and territory inside the country, just as Russia and Iran do. Only by being a factor on the ground will Washington be taken seriously as it seeks the implementation of a UN peace plan for Syria—a road map calling for nationwide democratic elections—that Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad are trying to bury.”

Seriously? Officials in Washington, with a few troops on the ground, are going to deter terrorist organizations, constrain Iran, end sectarian fighting, cow Moscow, and create a democratic Syria? Washington spent decades wrecking the region through misguided meddling and now is going to fix the mess in a few months or couple years? It is a delusion, a fantasy.

With the defeat of the Islamic State, Syria’s civil war has changed form. The Syrian government, with Iranian and Russian support, is targeting the few remaining Sunni Arab insurgents while Turkey has turned several Sunni rebel groups into anti-Kurdish proxies. Russia has deployed S-400 antiaircraft missiles, giving it leverage against Turkey and the United States.

Washington plans a permanent military presence in northern Syria. The administration is backing an independent Kurdish military, a policy guaranteed to run afoul of Turkey, Syria and Iran. Just as Iraqi Kurds used the chaos of war to expand their control, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) expanded Kurdish influence in Syria and now controls roughly a quarter of the country, called the Democratic Federation of Rojava. The United States worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), to defeat the Islamic State.

After the defeat of ISIS Washington promised to end weapons transfers to Kurdish forces. But then the Trump administration announced plans for a new Kurdish border force to prevent an ISIS revival. Ankara responded with “Operation Olive Branch” against Afrin, just over the Syrian border, and threatened to march east on Manbij, which contains American troops. Washington’s friends, including non-Kurdish troops, have begun breaking away to aid their compatriots—using U.S.-supplied weapons.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and many of his backers view America as an adversary, determined to do Turkey ill. Indeed, in few nations is popular antagonism toward Washington greater. Erdogan has benefited politically from escalating Turkey’s war against Kurdish separatists at home and abroad.

How did the United States get into this mess?

With the Arab Spring the United States called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow. His regime was odious, but threatened no one outside his borders, certainly not the United States. Washington’s designation of Damascus as a state sponsor of terrorism was political, reflecting Syria’s support for Arab organizations hostile to Israel. The United States made half-hearted efforts to support groups seeking to oust Assad. Alas, genuine moderates were few and ineffective, so Washington ended up backing more radical groups. Much of America’s aid ultimately ended up in the hands of jihadists who viewed the United States no more favorably than the Assad government.

While seeking to oust Assad, Washington improbably sought to simultaneously defeat ISIS, back so-called moderates, avoid radicals, support PYD, use YPG, cooperate with Turkey, oppose Iran, and sidestep Russians. As always, Washington’s ambitions greatly exceeded its ability.

Now the administration assures us that it has an even better idea, an extended occupation by combat troops amid multiple contending armed forces, highlighted by forcing Assad from office, fixing war-ravaged areas, building up Kurdish forces, satisfying the Turkish government, banishing Tehran’s influence, and avoiding confrontation with Russia. There is no risk of overreach or mission creep. And certainly no need for Congress to vote on the issue.