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.
Secretary Tillerson recently set forth the administration’s Syria policy. His talk ignored the consistent failure of American Mideast policy, starting with Syria. The United States also has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003—at the cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars—and neither country is remotely peaceful or stable. Washington helped wreck Libya, spreading chaos throughout the region. The U.S.-backed equally destructive intervention by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Now, the Trump administration says it has the answer.
“It is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria” and “crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria,” said Tillerson. He added: “Syria remains a source of severe strategic threats and a major challenge for our diplomacy.”
Threat to what? America was secure when Syria was united, allied with Moscow, and periodically at war with Israel. The United States was secure when the Assad regime lost control over much of the country and radical Islamists dominated the opposition. America was secure when the Islamic State created its infamous “caliphate” stretching over much or Iraq and Syria. America is secure with ISIS defeated, Assad ascendant, and chunks of the country held by a confusing mix of competing forces allied with varying nations. America’s interest in Syria is transcended by that of virtually every nation in the region, especially Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Tillerson cited the Islamic State, contending that America’s presence “is just more training and trying to block ISIS from their escape routes.” Former NATO commander James Stavridis similarly argued that “the message is our military presence is still about defeating ISIS and ensuring that it’s an enduring defeat.”
However, an American occupation of northern Syria isn’t necessary to stop ISIS from regrouping. The Islamic State always was the responsibility of the Middle Eastern states, all of which it considered to be its enemies. American involvement encouraged the Assad government to focus on other insurgents, enabled Ankara to tolerate the activities of ISIS, and allowed the Sunni Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, to shift their resources elsewhere, especially to intervening in Yemen’s civil war.
The Islamic State has lost 98 percent of the territory it once held. It beggars belief that Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria cannot together prevent an Islamic State revival. While early in the conflict Damascus targeted other insurgents, for reasons both of geography, particularly the location of the country’s most heavily populated areas, and Washington’s involvement, which made U.S.-backed forces more dangerous. Today the Assad government wants to reestablish control over any lands controlled by the Islamic State.
Ironically, ISIS resulted from prior U.S. military intervention. Secretary Tillerson’s appeal to the alleged mistake of withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 misrepresents history. It was the Bush administration’s invasion which created Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS. It was the Bush administration’s inability to win approval of a status-of-forces agreement that forced America’s withdrawal. And it was the Bush administration which put in place a Shia-nationalist government which alienated Sunnis, whose support was necessary for the Islamic State to take over much of the country.
Equally false is Tillerson’s claim that Washington is working with Ankara and maintaining friendly ties. Overall, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has never been worse, at least in recent history: Ankara is unashamedly moving toward dictatorship and enhancing ties with Russia, against which NATO is directed.
Moreover, President Erdogan always was more interested in ousting the Assad government and containing Kurdish forces than in destroying the Islamic State. Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations observed: “Over the course of the conflict in Syria, the Turkish government turned a blind eye to jihadists, enabled Al Qaeda affiliates, and was (at best) ambivalent about fighting the Islamic State.”
The Erdogan government long complained about U.S. reliance on Kurdish fighters and now has intervened militarily to prevent consolidation of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish state. Forget fine distinctions drawn by the United States between forces which it supports and those being attacked by Turkey. Ankara sees only “terrorists.”