Politics & Policy

Eight Years of Corrosive Lies about Syria

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter rides a vehicle in Baghouz, Syria, February 18, 2019 (Rodi Said/Reuters)
When will America’s leaders tell the truth about our role in the conflict?

We are told constantly that Donald Trump’s lies corrode the life of our Republic. Jacob Levy of the Niskanen Center invoked Hannah Arendt on the subject, and said that Trump uses lies the way authoritarians do, to demonstrate and expand their power, by “making his surrogates repeat the lies [he] compromised them; that tied them to him. And it degraded them, and made clear where power lay.” James Pfiffner of the Brookings Institute solemnly argued that Trump’s lies are different than past presidential fibs because Trump doesn’t try to equivocate, and that they thus “challenge the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment.”

I’m willing to give these arguments in the defense of truth-telling a great deal of time. The triviality of some presidential lies, they often tell us, is an aggravating factor. By lying trivially, and casually, the president demeans truth itself, which is suborned by power. All true, as far as it goes.

But, then I come across another story about Syria in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that the United States may leave 1,000 troops in that country after all. The president, if you’ll remember, announced a complete withdrawal of troops from Syria months ago. Then, weeks later the White House announced that a small force of 200 would stay behind. Now, the Journal was reporting that it would actually be 1,000. A few hours later the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff said the original plan remained unchanged.

I realized that I no longer knew what to believe.

Consider three assertions routinely made about Syria by pundits, politicians, and policymakers: 1) Syria shows the perils of U.S. non-intervention; 2) We’re only in Syria to fight ISIS; and 3) U.S. withdrawal from Syria would mean handing a victory to Vladimir Putin.

All of the above statements have become conventional wisdom. The same people sometimes repeat more than one of them. And yet they are entirely irreconcilable with one another.

If withdrawing from Syria means handing a victory to Vladimir Putin, then we are doing something other than fighting ISIS there, something that certainly can’t be described as “non-intervention.”

One fact I do know: The CIA began the U.S. mission in the Syrian Civil War years before ISIS came into being, and a full year before President Obama began talking up his red lines and proposing a congressional vote to authorize intervention in Syria.

Another fact, I do know: We were told that we were arming “moderate rebels,” but these moderate rebels fought side by side with Al Nusra. And Al Nusra fighters were often known to be using weapons brought in by the CIA or the Department of Defense to fight this war in which we weren’t intervening. We also funded a group called Nour al-Din al-Zenki, until its members showed up on YouTube beheading a child, at which point the “moderate” label no longer quite fit.

Congress, looking at the polls, refused to authorize U.S. military intervention in Syria, which was already ongoing. So did the intervention stop? No, it continued under the 2001 AUMF that authorized the president to make war on al-Qaeda. We were now using the legal authority to hunt and destroy al-Qaeda to fund and arm al-Qaeda’s allies on the ground in Syria.

We were told by Syria hawks that the fate of Christian Syrians was better served by the rebels, and that anyone who said otherwise was a dupe for the butcher Bashar al-Assad. In fact, the rebels the U.S. sponsored kidnapped and ransomed Christian bishops and shelled Christian towns.

We were told that U.S. failure to intervene was causing the refugee crisis. But what was the end game for the rebels in Syria? Anyone who has looked at a map can see that the minority ethnic Alawites predominate in the most important Syrian cities. How were Sunnis, many of them radical Islamists, going to govern that country? How would they seize power? Simple. Their plan was to ethnically cleanse Alawites out of the cities, which would have caused a refugee crisis.

ISIS emerged from the chaos of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria, giving a temporarily popular mandate for an intervention in Syria, though not for regime change in Damascus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the culture of lies trickles downward, and in 2014 internal reviews showed that CENTCOM manipulated intelligence about the progress of the war on ISIS.

The president told us that ISIS is defeated and we’re coming home. But that turned out to be untrue. We have to continue our “non-intervention” in Syria forever. Because we’re only there to fight ISIS, and if we get out Vladimir Putin wins, somehow. None of it makes sense, and whether Obama, Trump, or Beto O’Rourke is in office, that won’t change. Trump’s lies about poll numbers are a totalitarian threat and we need to invoke Hannah Arendt to understand them. Lying about our reasons for remaining at war in Syria is just business as usual.


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