The Terrible Case for Staying in Syria
President Donald Trump was right to want to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and should not have let his advisers overrule him. The rationales the administration gives for keeping U.S. forces in Syria are impossibly ambitious, and vehicles for escalation. Elements of the administration, starting with John Bolton, the national security adviser, seem eager to use U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq as bait for a war with Iran.
We have occasionally hoped that Congress might bestir itself to vote on the U.S. war in Syria, or even end it. Instead, its members mostly criticized the possibility of withdrawal, avoided any vote on the war, and now have sponsored an expert report setting out an extravagant set of missions for the small U.S. force remaining there.
Last December, when Trump suddenly announced the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and declared ISIL militarily defeated, foreign policy pundits across the political spectrum were appalled. The nation’s major op-ed pages wailed. With a few exceptions, most of whom are running for president, the Senate overcame its partisan divide to condemn the withdrawal of troops. Trump’s own secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, and his special envoy to the “Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” Brett McGurk, resigned in protest over the decision.
The criticisms worked. Trump partly reversed his decision in February, agreeing to keep 400 U.S. troops in Syria (probably with an equal or larger number of covert forces). The official rationale for keeping this small contingent was not debated — largely because Congress never voted on authorizing the war, and never made the administration explain its thinking in hearings. It looks increasingly likely that one-term or two, the Trump administration will end with U.S. troops still present in Syria.
Instead of oversight, Congress chose to make its own case for staying. It established a 12-member panel, the Syria Study Group, which released an interim report May 1. That report offers extravagant objectives, fanciful initiatives, and a full-throated case against leaving Syria anytime soon. This week, 400 of the nation’s 535 legislators signed a letter essentially advancing the report’s logic.
The Study Group report shifts from seeking ISIL’s military defeat to its “enduring defeat,” a phrase pioneered by James Jeffrey, the administration’s special representative for Syria engagement. That defeat, the report argues, can only emerge once there is “inclusive, responsive, and legitimate governance in the areas it once controlled.” “Reconstruction,” we learn, “will take decades.”
The report contends that the United States has “key national security interests at stake” in Syria, including defending the “rules-based international order,” somehow. The report outlines five missions for the U.S. military to pursue in Syria: training and assisting forces fighting ISIL; direct-action counter-terrorism; “enabling civilian-led stabilization efforts;” helping the resistance Syrian Democratic Forces handle ISIL prisoners; and serving “as the enabling platform” for the anti-ISIL campaign.
If one were writing a recipe for keeping troops in Syria as long as possible, this would be hard to beat. It reads like a throwback to the heady days during which eating soup with a knife was going to fix Iraq and Afghanistan — only with exponentially fewer troops to eat it.
The aims set out in the report would be impossible to achieve even with a far larger force, which would be bad news if they had any relation to U.S. security interests. First, while the United States may aid multilateral efforts at Syria’s reconstruction, military forces on the ground are not required to do so. “Civilian-led stabilization” is ultimately the job of the Syrian government, like it or not, and there is no reason U.S. forces should be engaged in competitive governance in Syria. Likewise, managing ISIL prisoners is not something the small U.S. force in Syria is equipped or legally able to do.
As to the anti-ISIL campaign itself, the group holds none — zero — of the territory it held at the height of its vaunted caliphate. That is a real defeat that undercuts its ability to plot violence, recruit, and inspire attacks. The persistence of ISIL’s ideology inside Syria is no reason for staying. Experience says that occupying U.S. troops cannot extinguish those ideas, and might encourage them.
The best counter-terrorism solution in Syria is to let the Assad regime, which has all but won the civil war, do the job of governing its territory against ISIL. The Kurds can help, especially if the United States lets them cut a deal with Assad, rather than blocking it as Jeffrey has reportedly been doing, apparently in the quixotic hope that they will join the Turks to oppose Assad.
The Syria Study Group report also wants U.S. forces in Syria to “maintain pressure” on Iran, and in a vaguer way, Russia. This makes little sense. Assad invited Iranian and Russian forces to Syria to help him win the civil war. They are not likely to leave unless he asks them to — and perhaps not even if he does — but they cannot be evicted by a few hundred U.S. troops.
The U.S. troops in Syria seem more like bait for Iranian forces than their evictor. They resemble Pleiku, the U.S. base in South Vietnam which the Viet Cong attacked, allowing Lyndon Johnson’s administration to escalate the war. Syria, everyone knows, is lousy with Iranian-linked forces. Given the enmity between the two countries, tossing this mission into the Trump administration’s twitchy palms is reckless in the extreme. We should remove forces from Syria to lower the chances of war with Iran, not keep them there to spark one.
More broadly, there is no windfall to be had for Iran or Russia in Syria beyond helping wind down a sectarian civil war — a grim payoff in the best scenario. Contrary to the report’s reasoning, helping to govern impoverished territory riven by sectarian violence cannot propel a state to regional dominance or global gains.
Instead of empaneling a group of experts to help oppose the president’s policy, Congress should have taken a vote on whether the United States should be at war in Syria at all. ISIL did not exist when the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force was passed, and it takes an ambitious lawyer’s leap of logic to include a group that didn’t exist in that authorization. Nor does international law justify the U.S. troop presence, as occupying Syria has not been authorized by the United Nations Security Council or invited by the barbarous regime in Damascus. If Congress wants U.S. troops in Syria — and based on the Syria Study Group and its actions, it seems to — senators and representatives should have the courage of their convictions and take a vote, hold hearings, explain their reasoning and take responsibility for the outcome.
Perhaps the best one can say of the administration and the legislature is that they have finally found a way to work together: in ensuring that U.S. troops stay in Syria for the foreseeable future, with a mission far beyond their reach, in pursuit of goals unrelated to U.S. national security.
Benjamin H. Friedman (@BH_Friedman) is policy director at Defense Priorities. Justin Logan (@JustinTLogan) is director of programs and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University. They are the authors of a report from Defense Priorities entitled “Disentangling from Syria’s Civil War: The Case for U.S. Military Withdrawal.”