Amid a week of attention-grabbing drama about the dysfunction of Donald Trump’s presidency, it almost escaped notice that his administration is putting U.S. troops in harm’s way in a foreign war for a new purpose—a purpose that does not entail countering a threat to the United States. Newly appointed special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey stated that under a “new policy” on Syria, the United States is “no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” This policy goes against what Trump had been saying not only in the presidential campaign about wanting less U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars but also, more recently and more specifically, about wanting to withdraw the twenty-two thousand U.S. soldiers now in Syria.
Those troops have been in the northeastern part of the country, hitherto focused on aiding the fight against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. But now, according to Jeffrey, besides mopping up the remnants of ISIS’s former mini-state in eastern Syria, U.S. troops are to stay in Syria indefinitely with the objective of ejecting from the country all troops of Syria’s ally Iran. Administration officials say that a motivation for the new policy is growing doubt that Russia will be either able or willing to assist in such an ejection.
The new policy is an entirely new war aim, not an extension or corollary of the prior declared purpose of combating ISIS. In fact, Iran’s presence in Syria, aimed at supporting the Assad regime, has been on the opposite side of the Syrian civil war from ISIS, which has aimed to overthrow that regime. Hawks in the administration have been talking for some time, of course, about confronting and opposing Iran any way and anywhere they can, but Jeffrey’s statement marks an official departure from what had been a U.S. war objective in Syria exclusively focused on ISIS.
An Unscrutinized War Aim
That shift warrants much more scrutiny and debate than it is getting. American service members are being dispatched to a foreign war for the purpose of somehow getting one Middle Eastern state that has had a longstanding security relationship with another Middle Eastern state to remove its personnel from that second state. Exactly how are U.S. interests supposedly affected by whether those personnel stay or go? The only Americans who might be harmed under one scenario but not the other are the very soldiers who are being dispatched. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has existed for decades, going back to when the two states shared an adversary in the form of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
The issue is not only whether U.S. interests are affected but whether they are affected so much as to justify participation of the U.S. military in a foreign war—which should entail a higher standard. Suppose that Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution were observed, as it ought to be but generally is not, and that a congressional declaration of war preceded involvement of the U.S. military in any foreign war. Suppose further that when an already deployed U.S. force is given an entirely different mission, that this mission and the deployment intended to serve it are given a thorough zero-based review—which it ought to be but generally is not. Would the elected representatives of the American people vote to send American soldiers into a war for the purpose of getting a Middle Eastern state to move some of its own troops from point A to point B (troops that had gone to point A not as invaders but instead to assist the incumbent government)? Probably not, despite years of rhetoric depicting Iran as evil incarnate.
To be fair, withdrawing an already deployed U.S. expeditionary force is not entirely the same as deploying one afresh, whether or not the mission has changed. When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger inherited the Vietnam War in 1969, their task was not centered on the question of whether the war had been a good or a bad idea in the first place but instead on how to extract a half-million-man army in a way that could plausibly be presented as “peace with honor.” But the scale of extraction and of the associated emotions and politics involving sunk costs are vastly different with the small U.S. force in Syria. Any legitimate issues about extraction there should focus on the previously established mission of mopping up ISIS.
No Good Solutions
The Syrian war always has been, and still is, a problem with no good solutions as far as U.S. policy is concerned. Robert Malley, who coordinated Middle Eastern policy in the Obama White House, describes Syria as a “failure” for the administration in which he worked. The agonizing over Syria is likely to accelerate in the coming days as the Syrian regime attempts to capture Idlib province, the last major remaining redoubt of rebel forces, and one to which many fighters ousted from other rebel enclaves had earlier repaired.