Donald Trump ran for president advocating a different kind of foreign policy. But his appointees are taking a Clintonesque approach to Syria: half-hearted military intervention on behalf of minimal security interests, resulting in great risk with little gain. To avoid escalating involvement in someone else’s war, the president should assert control over his foreign policy.
When asked about Syria recently, the president responded that it was all about the Islamic State: “We are there for one reason, to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and go home. We are not there for any other reason.”
But his officials believe that America’s involvement is about everything other than the Islamic State. In a recent speech Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implausibly defended America’s involvement in yet another permanent war as, among other things, a refusal to “restore Assad and continue his brutal treatment of his own people” and “provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria.”
Some seventeen hundred American military personnel are expected to deal with what a Pentagon official described as “converging forces with diverging interests.” The resulting conflict is horrendous, but the parties haven’t finished their fight. Yet another UN call for a ceasefire won’t stop the conflict. Nor will the administration policy, which involves broad commitments, minimal interests, multiple combatants, inadequate resources, unrealistic goals, antagonistic powers, conflicting objectives, minimal oversight and nonexistent public support. What could possibly go right?
The 2011 Arab Spring spawned public protests in Syria, which were brutally suppressed by President Bashar al-Assad. Armed resistance followed, leading to a multisided civil war. The Obama administration simultaneously sought to defeat ISIS, oust Assad, encourage moderate insurgents, pacify Ankara, use Kurdish forces, avoid Russian complications, and enlist the Saudis.
The Islamic State lost and the Kurds were used, but otherwise Washington failed to achieve its objectives. Assad survives and is retaking territory, there never were many genuine moderates to promote, Turkey invaded and attacked Washington’s Kurdish friends, combat forces backed by the United States and Russia have clashed, and Riyadh dropped the anti-ISIS campaign to launch its brutal campaign against Yemen, dragging in Washington.
The demise of ISIS the Caliphate provided President Trump with an opportunity to declare victory and bring home America’s military personnel. Which would have been an occasion worth celebrating with a parade.
Today the Syrian issue is mostly a humanitarian challenge for the United States. The world should celebrate when Assad eventually faces eternal judgment for his crimes. But Washington cannot justify American military intervention. Moreover, trying to sort out a complex civil war in which there are multiple forces ranging from dubious to awful is a task beyond the abilities of career-minded bureaucrats, think tank gurus, pundits, election-minded legislators, eternally-hopeful diplomats and political activists.
Of course, even many conservative Republican critics of social engineering at home seem to believe in nation-building abroad, that even Democratic presidents and congressional lawmakers who allegedly did so much to destroy American society can transcend history, religion, ethnicity, geography, culture, ideology and more to inaugurate peace on earth. Alas, that didn’t happen after previous intervention in the Middle East, Balkans, Africa and Asia. And it won’t happen in Syria now. Outsiders can’t fix Syria. The Trump administration should not squander American lives and resources in a heedless pursuit of the demonstrated impossible.
Syria’s conflict matters little for American security. Damascus was allied to the Soviet Union and hostile to Israel throughout the Cold War, but was largely impotent. Despite being tagged as a terrorist state, Syria does not engage in terrorism, especially against America; the designation is political, reflecting Damascus’ hostility toward Israel. But even before its virtual dissolution Syria was a pygmy compared to Israel militarily. The latter can defend its own interests, as it demonstrated when it destroyed a presumed nuclear reactor in 2007. Even with Russian and Iranian support it will take Damascus years to recover, during which it will be a geopolitical nullity.
Moscow’s alliance with Syria matters less today than before. Russia’s involvement largely reflects reassertion of an interest held during the Cold War—an interest in causing the U.S. discomfort, given American sanctions and continued involvement in Ukraine. Washington policymakers appear outraged that there is one country in the Middle East that looks to Moscow when most everyone else—Israel, Jordan and the Gulf States—is strongly aligned with America. U.S. policymakers should eschew geopolitical greed. American involvement is not worth the price.
Especially if the two great powers stumble into a military confrontation. Apparently American airstrikes killed numerous Russian mercenaries fighting with pro-Assad forces that attacked a U.S.-backed militia near Deir ez-Zour and Syrian energy fields. Some reports indicate that a U.S. base was threatened. Washington has no interest in such a fight. The United States should count its blessings and leave at least one of the world’s many conflicts to other nations.