If the intent of President Trump’s “ America first ” foreign policy is to “put the interests of the American people and American security above all else,” events currently playing out in Syria expose it as a failed policy. While the goal of defending American citizens and interests from the Islamic State has always been entirely valid, the way Washington has pursued that objective has diminished American security, not preserved it.
On the surface it may appear to have been a smart move: to combat the Islamic State, the United States would support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in its drive to retake Mosul and support the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to capture the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa. But it shouldn’t have taken much analysis to see the plan had little chance of long-term success for America.
At a fundamental level, it has been plain from the beginning that the Islamic State was never going to be a viable political entity that could maintain the territory it has seized from a fatally weak Iraqi military in June 2014. The Islamic State fighters were excellent at slaughtering civilians and prisoners, but with no administrative ability whatsoever, their demise was ordained before the dust had settled from their original conquest.
A wise U.S. policy at the time would have been to contain the Islamic State threat to its geographic footprint and demonstrate patience as the Islamic terror group was slowly squeezed to death by the many regional powers that had both the motive and the means to destroy the Islamic State.
In Iraq, the government in Baghdad had existential motivation to recover from their 2014 debacle, reform its military, and retake its territory. While it would have taken longer for them to eliminate the Islamic State, the combination of the ISF and the Shia militias would have eventually ground the Islamic State out of existence.
Things were even more complicated in Syria, and the forces opposed to the Islamic State larger in number and greater in power. The regime in Syria, the Russian and Iranian armed forces, Turkey, and numerous rebel groups all opposed the Islamic State and would have eventually succeeded in wiping out the Islamic State without any U.S. involvement.
Instead, the Obama administration reinserted thousands of U.S. troops into Iraq beginning in 2014 to work with the ISF, and in late 2015 deployed the first special operations troops into Syria to work with various rebel groups allied against the Islamic State. The complications and deterioration of U.S. interests began almost immediately.
In Iraq, U.S. advisors and air power in some cases ironically helped Iranian-backed militias succeed on the ground, strengthening Teheran’s hand in Iraq. Their influence remains strong today . Less than two months into his presidency, Trump ordered hundreds more troops into Syria to assist the SDF in its battle against the Islamic State, especially in Raqqa. Almost immediately U.S.-NATO ally Turkey protested the effort, Syria condemned the intrusion into their country, and Russia cautioned against it.
The U.S.-backed SDF did indeed eventually liberate Raqqa , but again it must be pointed out that the Islamic State would have eventually lost Raqqa even without U.S. involvement. The cost to our country at having supported the Kurds, however, has been growing.
Making good on his early threats, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan crossed into Syrian territory to engage in what he called Operation Olive Branch on January 20. Turkish troops began attacking the SDF, whom Ankara views as a terror threat to its country. Though both the Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis mildly protested, Erdogan ignored U.S. pleas with cavalier disdain.
“We don’t care what they say,” the Turkish president said of American reaction. “They will learn how wrong it is to trust a terror organization.” Adding that Turkey would only remain on Syrian territory until they had accomplished their objectives, Erdogan sarcastically added, “I ask the United States: Did you have any specific time duration in Afghanistan?”
Adding insult to injury, Russia owned the airspace above the location in Syria where Turkey attacked: Ankara got Moscow to support its move against the SDF in opposition to U.S. preferences. That a NATO ally can so easily and publicly rebuke the United States, literally killing soldiers that America supported and cooperating with its biggest competitor, is a troubling indicator how much influence Washington has lost. Russia is only too happy to drive a wedge between NATO countries, especially if it pokes a stick in America’s eye.
All of these developments are unequivocally antithetical to American interests––and all of them could have been avoided if Obama had not committed the United States to the operations in Iraq and Syria, and if Trump hadn’t doubled-down on the missions. As it is, the trouble is still not over. Recent events have raised the potential for unintentional military clashes between the United States and Turkey.