Donald Trump is looking to make a precipitate exit from Syria. His advisers, most of the leading opinion writers in the country, and all the great and the good of America’s foreign-policy elite are crying out at the blunder they anticipate it will be. The president is handing a gift to Vladimir Putin and Iran. The president is betraying our allies. Disaster.
I don’t think so.
You may remember that the U.S. Congress refused to authorize intervention in Syria in 2013, when President Obama kicked the question to them. They refused to do so because of polls showing that Americans opposed intervention overwhelmingly, roughly 70–30. And support for intervention tends to go down over time. However, U.S. forces had already been active in Syria, and in Syria’s civil war, for at least a year by that point, working with the CIA to arm and train Sunnis fighting the government. Alas, in our scramble to find “moderate rebels,” we often ended up arming Al Nusra, the franchise of al-Qaeda that is native to Syria.
More U.S. forces came into Syria in 2014 and 2015 to combat ISIS, which had formed its burgeoning statelet in the chaos of western Iraq and eastern Syria. They did so under the dubiously reinterpreted congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force from 2001.
As refugees and migrants flowed out of Syria, every great power, regional power, or freelancing wannabe flowed in. The United States, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf states, Russia, and lately even China have tried to get involved in one or another aspect of the fight. Even the persecuted Uighur minority of western China, improbable as it sounds, has fighters involved in northwest Syria.
In the midst of this, you might ask, what are Americans trying to accomplish in Syria? For laymen, it certainly is confusing. Advocates for staying in Syria are sometimes specific and sometimes vague. One commentator will say we have to stay in order to defeat ISIS, another will say we have to stay to honor and protect the Kurds because their militias helped us defeat ISIS. Another will say that we are there, joined in the struggle to secure a post-war order in Syria. Still others will say that the mission is to prevent Russia from achieving greater influence in the region.
American policymakers have mostly given up on the mission of helping rebels topple the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, partly because it would be very difficult to dislodge him. Intervention remains unpopular, and Russia proved willing to intervene dramatically. Of course it did; it naturally wants to protect naval assets hosted by a longtime regional ally, especially at a time when it considers other naval assets in Ukraine to be under pressure.
America turned its fire on the Islamic State and destroyed the burgeoning caliphate. That burgeoning statelet has been annihilated. But there are still thousands of ISIS fighters in the region, mostly in northern Syria, many of them among the rebel forces that occasionally excite American sympathy. This is why the president and experts seem to say that ISIS is defeated in one breath, and ISIS is still a threat in the next. But Syria is not the only place where ISIS can be found. ISIS also has places to operate in western Iraq, which is still barely reconciled to the government in Baghdad. And “affiliate” groups exist throughout much of North Africa.
In the fight against ISIS, we’ve worked closely with left-wing Kurdish militia, who are a thorn in the side of our NATO ally Turkey. Kurdish-controlled zones tend to be more religiously tolerant than neighboring ones, though they are also considered a security threat by Erdogan and Assad. The fights between Kurds and Turks should give readers an idea of how “entangled” our alliances have become in the Middle East.
So in this situation, commentators argue against leaving because it would abandon our Kurdish allies on the ground to the tender mercies of our Turkish allies. This would ruin our credibility when we intervene elsewhere. It would give Putin a “gift” and we would lose leverage in a post-war Syrian settlement.
Much of that is true. There are always costs to abandoning a bad investment. And yet these costs are preferable to an endless, ever-evolving mission that has no popular support or mandate. What critics of withdrawal refuse to do is describe the actual sustainable ends they want to achieve with America’s military in Syria.
What would a post-war Syria that is acceptable to America look like, and how can America bring it about at a cost Americans are willing to accept? We are not told. What are the conditions we hope to achieve before the mission can end? This question is also met with silence.
It is as if the downsides of leaving are cited only because staying keeps American soldiers and matériel near the ongoing disaster in Syria, a disaster that may yet yield an international outrage that will motivate Americans to expand the mission to include regime change. Every few months, as Assad’s government reclaims more territory, media outlets dutifully relay the messages of rebels ahead of their latest evacuations. So far public opinion has refused to satisfy the foreign-policy hawks.
As for Russian prestige, is it so enhanced? As in eastern Ukraine, so in Syria: The United States placed a gamble on a people-powered movement that would have the effect of depriving Russia of an ally that hosts vital Russian naval assets, and Russia eventually scrambled to avoid this major loss. It is not so much a gift as the successful and costly prevention of a theft.
If Russia’s prestige has been enhanced in the Middle East, perhaps it is not so much the fecklessness of American intervention and the resolution of Putin, but that Russia simply had the more viable strategy. Russia has intervened on behalf of traditional state actors, Iran and Syria. The United States, since the Arab Spring, has fitfully allied itself with demotic and even revolutionary Sunni movements. The relationships of these movements to Sunni terrorist movements such as Al Nusra and ISIS has been rather fluid.
In fact, Russia’s reentry into the Middle East has been made much easier by U.S. failures in the region, in the exact same way that increased Iranian influence follows American failure. The Iraq War increased the polarization of Sunni and Shia across the region, and Russia has simply sided with those who have more reason than ever to resent American involvement in the region. Russia could even advert to its own people and to the world that it was returning to its role as a protector of Christian religious minorities. It can make this ruse almost believable, because America’s and Saudi Arabia’s actions support, directly and sometimes indirectly, Sunni movements that are fantastically intolerant. If Syria is a gift to the Russians, let them have it — just as we took the “gift” of Afghanistan, only to discover how unhappy it has made us.
My friend Noah Rothman writes in Commentary, “Political commentators and anti-interventionist ideologues will note that withdrawing America’s modest footprint from Syria is popular with the public. But what would you expect? Precisely no one in the political class is making a case for sustained and substantial American intervention in this conflict zone.”
Are we sure that we have cause and effect in correct order? At the height of anger and outrage at Bashar Assad’s government, most of the press, most of the U.S. Senate, and the president himself were making a case for intervention against Assad. They did so on the limited basis of enforcing norms against the use of chemical weapons, though the war aims would surely be wider, just as a few years earlier the mission in Libya went from protecting human life to decapitating the regime. Americans were against such an intervention in Syria nearly four to one. The Parliament of the United Kingdom opposed it. Then the U.S. Congress dropped it. The wisdom of putting the power of war in the people’s house is that democracies cannot fight successful wars without popular support.
As for credibility with our allies, the Kurds allied with us, as did others, because we are powerful and rich. They are capable of remembering how George H. W. Bush encouraged Iraqis and Kurds to rise up against Saddam in the early 1990s, only to extricate ourselves. They knew the risks. They also know who is president of the United States, and have started talks about guaranteeing a tolerable order with the Syrian government.
When the U.S. embarked on its bid to transform Iraq, it did so while touting a “democratic domino theory.” A free Iraq would be an example that weakens the grip of authoritarians and despots across the Arab and Muslim world. So we were told.
And we did set the dominos in motion. But instead of stable democracies, what spread was chaos, Sunni radicalism, and an intensifying of the Sunni–Shia conflict across the Islamic world. Knocking over Iraq’s government put Baghdad in the grasp of Iran-sympathetic Shia, whose misgovernance encouraged a revolt across Iraq’s Sunni triangle and eventually in Syria. Similar Sunni radicalisms swept over Libya and Egypt. The results have been the destruction of minority religious communities of Christians and Yezidis and an ongoing refugee and migration crisis that has destabilized politics across almost the entirety of Europe.
We were told that we have to fight them over there, so that we do not have to fight them at home. But instead, we went to fight them over there, and find we are fighting them everywhere.
America has been conducting its terrorism fight according to the logic that obtains in imperial orders, where the great power at the center maintains an expansive, world-bestriding reign and tries to pick its fights along the permeable periphery of that order. Christmas markets and major public buildings at the centers of that order are reinforced and protected by concrete barriers.
But the unpopularity of intervention in Syria shows that Americans still have a small-r republican streak. Instead of trying to construct barriers to terrorism around Syria, and around a few important buildings in our cities, they would prefer barriers at the national border. It would be a shame if we ever gave up entirely on this republican spirit. Certainly nothing the hawks promise we’ll find in Syria seems worth sacrificing it.