The pullout from Syria is an occasion for just as much confusion as our entrance was. We are told that America’s presence is necessary to protect the Kurds from our NATO ally Turkey. Americans who are suspicious of the Syrian mission are told that we are still fighting ISIS there and that any chance of regime change in Damascus sailed away long ago. The Assad regime’s sponsors are Iran and Russia, and they are not interested in fighting ISIS, it is said. Okay then, so the United States is fighting ISIS only and has stopped dreaming of regime change in Damascus, but then when Donald Trump pulls out he’s accused of “handing a victory to Iran.” Or giving a gift to Vladimir Putin.
In other words, if you were skeptical of the mission, you are told that American intervention was now strictly limited to fighting one enemy, ISIS, and assisting one friend in certain zones. If you were enthusiastic for America in Syria, you are told that Trump’s withdrawal amounts to a total retreat in the face of every geopolitical rival on earth. This tiny force of 4,000 Americans is pursuing a modest objective in a few specified regions of Northern Syria. Also, since you’re asking, the whole mother-flipping liberal world order depends on it.
There is a way to resolve these conflicting stories. “Mission creep” is the term strategists have used for the shift in military objectives that results in a long-term commitment. You have to define a mission’s objectives so that you know when to declare victory and leave. But America’s mission in Syria is mission creep itself. We started pushing men and matériel into Syria in 2012 — about a year before Congress even bothered to have a debate about it. Ever since, we’ve been looking for a new rationale and new things to do.
You may recall that originally the fight wasn’t with ISIS or beside the Kurds. We were told that “moderate” Syrians were doing the thing that moderate people do all the time, waging bloody civil war against their government. And our job was to arm them and train them.
Then another enemy of Assad began to emerge in eastern Syria and western Iraq: ISIS. For a time, our policymakers and politicians pretended to believe that defeating ISIS required defeating Assad. They concocted elaborate theories about the codependence and cooperation of the forces. The Free Syrian Army was held out to be the beacon in the shining light, although its incredibly quick disintegration suggests it was little more than a branding exercise meant to attract foreign investment, which it got.
When ISIS started to behead Americans and inspire or coordinate terror attacks across Europe, Americans polled in favor of destroying them. Greater involvement in Syria, therefore, for the first time had the imprimatur of American public opinion. It was given the legal imprimatur of the 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force. The problem for hawks and the foreign-policy establishment was that this was popular opinion in favor of confronting Sunni fanatics, when the problem that hawks wanted to confront was two Shia governments, in Damascus and Tehran.
So every six months or so “a new plan” for American involvement in Syria is submitted for public debate. All these new plans are the same as the old one from 2012: Sure, sure, beat ISIS, but then topple Assad somehow and hurt Iran by doing so. In 2015, Frederick Kagan suggested inserting 40,000 to 50,000 troops to create a safe zone in Syria. NATO allies would fill it in, and the U.S. would press forward toward creating facts on the ground that forced Assad out of power.
Last year at a speech at the Hoover Institution, then–secretary of state Rex Tillerson outlined a way forward in Syria. Tillerson had “five key end states”: reducing Iran’s influence in Syria, creating conditions for refugees to return, ensuring that Syria was free of weapons of mass destruction, transitioning away from the leadership of Assad, and preventing the Islamic State and al-Qaeda from returning. He promised to do all that with a minimum of troop commitments.
In fact, many refugees were already returning to Syria as Assad recaptured territory, and the zones of conflict changed. And because ISIS grew in the vacuum of authority in eastern Syria and western Iraq, it seems that strengthening long-lasting government authority is the swiftest way to reduce the capacity of ISIS locally, rather than continue low-grade war in ad hoc alliances with non-state actors.
The disparity between the mission the public approved — defeating ISIS — and the mission that Washington’s interventionists wanted — ousting Assad and hurting Iran — lasted all the way up until Trump announced his policy. And that is why the arguments for staying in Syria seem to ring so hollow now that the caliphate has been destroyed. Some number of people, such as my colleague David French, merely want to deny ISIS any safe haven. But many hawks want to stay because they want more chances to make their case for regime change and anti-Iranian military action in Syria. Their mission was mission creep. Six years is enough.