National Security & Defense

What Are We Still Doing in Syria?

U.S. Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit conduct a fire mission in northern Syria in March 2017. (Photo: Corporal Zachery C. Laning)
With our ongoing war efforts there, the Trump administration is courting disaster.

Congress refused to authorize American intervention in Syria in 2013. Still, we sent in Special Forces. Congress later authorized a smaller intervention against ISIS. The caliphate was smashed, after President Trump changed the rules of engagement, and the president claimed credit. Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, had crushed most of the rebel forces. All done, U.S. troops can come home, having not been authorized to carry out any other missions by the people through their representatives. Right?

Wrong. Last week, in a speech at the Hoover Institute, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson relayed America’s latest policy in the Syrian civil war. We’re staying. And we’re going to accomplish everything we failed to do over the last half decade. We’re going to finish off both ISIS and al-Qaeda. Then resolve the conflict between Assad and his opponents, diminish Iranian influence, make the country safe for returning refugees, and ensure that there are no weapons of mass destruction in the country. And we’re going to do it without committing major resources. Yessiree, we’re going to lick this Syria problem even though our putative allies in the region are now more divided than ever.

The Congress and the U.K. Parliament both declined to go along with the elite consensus for regime change in Syria years ago. Later, Russian intervention on Assad’s behalf surely had some persuasive power of its own. So too the realization that the “moderate rebels” were little more than a PR front group for al-Qaeda. But Tillerson tells us it is still American policy to plan “for a post-Assad Syria.”

Tillerson said that “previous American efforts to halt the conflict have been ineffective.” Perhaps that is because they’ve also been unauthorized, which means they were illegal — and conducted without popular support. Sure, officials have occasionally trotted out the 2001 Authorization of Military Force against al-Qaeda, and they’ve preposterously twisted it into an authorization to destroy al-Qaeda’s chief enemy in Syria. But public opinion ran overwhelmingly against intervention, so the United States just conducted a smaller and more clandestine war than the one it would have preferred.

The prospect of a massive American intervention almost certainly extended and exacerbated the Syrian war and also created a moral hazard by allowing rebels to overestimate their chance of success. That is America’s contribution to “a humanitarian catastrophe,” where “half a million Syrians have died,” Tillerson noted. “Over 5.4 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.1 million are internally displaced persons, or IDPs. And as a result of conflict between regime and opposition forces, whole cities have been destroyed.” Not to mention a string of terror attacks in Europe connected to refugee flows, the destabilization of Europe’s Shengen Agreement (by which Europe’s internal borders have been largely abolished), and the loss of credibility for the European center-left and center-right. Brexit, the weakness of France’s two major political parties, and the hobbling of Merkel’s political career can all be partially blamed on the West’s botched foreign-policy decisions in Libya and Syria.

Yet none of the enormities since 2013 have dimmed the hopes of American policymakers. And now the war may get more complicated. A few days after Tillerson’s speech, Turkey’s armed forces burst through the Syrian border, attacking the Kurdish militias who have been the most reliable allies of the United States in the fight against ISIS.

Kurdish militias already have reason to distrust Americans, who welcomed their help in dismantling ISIS in Iraq, only to be driven out of Kirkuk by the Iraqi army. Now these same fighters face the wrath of long-term NATO ally Turkey, which is undergoing its own Islamicizing counterrevolution.

Can the U.S. ever gain the trust of new allies in this region if we allow the Turks to annihilate our Kurdish friends?

Consider the problems occasioned merely by one American ally. Can the U.S. ever gain the trust of new allies in this region if we allow the Turks to annihilate our Kurdish friends? Is our Article 5 NATO guarantee to Turkey likely to make Erdogan more or less responsible while conducting military operations in the same theater as Russia? Is Erdogan really a great friend of the United States, when he is threatening our European allies with a new migration crisis if Turkey is not put on a faster track to full membership in the EU? Oh, and by the way, Europe is in a lose-lose arrangement when it comes to Turkey as well. Turkey’s full membership would, by its very nature, cause a politically perilous migration crisis for Europe. How would European powers react to even more election rallies for Erdogan in their capital cities?

And that is just Turkey. The United States still has to accommodate the demands of its other friends, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Who authorized this ongoing presence in Syria? How are all these goals possibly achieved with such a paltry troop commitment and no popular support? How long can the United States pretend to manage everyone’s ambitions and demands in Syria without risking a more direct and deadly conflict with Russian forces there?

What the hell are we doing?


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Iran’s Challenge to America in Syria

The Great Muslim Civil War — and Us


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