As I explained last week, the recent deployment of U.S. Marines and Army Rangers to Syria — with more troops likely to be sent in the near future — represents an evolution of American strategy.
Yet these ground forces also give the U.S. dominant territorial control over north-central Syria. And because Trump is still an unknown quantity to regional leaders — no one can be sure how he would respond to an attack on U.S. troops — the new deployments give him added leverage over developments in Syria.
He should use this influence in five ways.
First, he should clarify that Bashar al-Assad has no place in Syria’s future, promising that U.S. forces won’t leave the country until the dictator steps down. This is important for one simple reason: Unless Assad goes, Syria-based Salafi-Jihadist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham will continue to find money, recruits, and the means to chaos. Because he has ordered the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, Assad is the best recruiting tool Sunni jihadists have. ISIS will not be defeated until he leaves. The Russians, of course, won’t like this. But they are also highly unlikely to yield to a wholly American solution. In light of this fact, Trump should offer assurances that the U.S. will support the continuation of Putin’s existing military and trading relationships with any future Syrian government. Such is the demand of hard-headed realism.
Second, Trump should use the deployment of American ground troops to influence Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and relevant Kurdish groups. Dealing effectively with Erdogan is critical to bettering Syria’s future, however difficult it may be. His increasingly aggressive stance toward the Iraqi government and Kurdish groups in northern Syria is highly destabilizing: It distracts from the fight against ISIS, it risks a bloody new war with the Kurds, and it weakens Iraq, which already is already facing serious challenges from Iran. Trump’s boots on the ground give him the means to temper the Turkish leader. Erdogan, after all, knows better than to enter a fight he cannot win. He showed that when he backed down from the showdown that ensued after Turkish forces shot down a Russian attack aircraft in late 2015. With the help of regional and European allies, Trump can isolate Erdogan and put him back in his palace.
Third, Trump should use the troops now at his disposal to disrupt ISIS’s communication lines along the Euphrates River corridor, which connects the group’s forces in western Iraq from its forces in Syria. Such a mission would knock ISIS further off its balance and degrade its morale. Even better from a strategic standpoint, it would restrain the freedom of movement of ISIS’s leaders and operations officers, discredit the group’s claim to a contiguous caliphate, and foster new confidence in the beleaguered Sunni tribes that dominate the cross-border provinces.
At present, our adversaries in Syria believe we are malleable.
Fourth, Trump should leverage the symbolism of American ground forces to request reciprocal deployments from the Jordanians, Saudis, and Emiratis. These allies are already predisposed to work with Trump because of his tough stance toward Iran, which they see as a great improvement on Obama’s coddling of the Islamic Republic. Their forces would help in the fight against ISIS while acting as a culturally sympathetic, stabilizing influence in eastern Syria’s Sunni heartlands.
Fifth, Trump should take advantage of the security envelopes offered by the new deployments and send Defense Secretary James Mattis to the frontline. At present, our adversaries in Syria believe we are malleable. By showing that senior U.S. leaders are willing to go face-to-face with the enemy, Trump could counteract this perception of weakness and reiterate America’s commitment to ending the conflict. ISIS thrives on the lie that the U.S. is a cowardly nation ordained for defeat. By sending Mattis — a man greatly respected by friends and foes alike — to stand over the group’s capital, Trump would make clear to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s hordes that their end is near.
Ultimately, Trump needs to embrace his deployments not simply for their tactical potential, but for their potential to bring about a more stable Syrian future.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for Opportunity Lives and National Review, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets. E-mail him at Thomas.RoganE@Gmail.com.
Editor’s note: This article has been emended since its original publication.