Since President Donald Trump’s directive to withdraw U.S. ground forces from Syria, the foreign policy elite keep levying complaints. While the people opposing Trump’s Syria decision may be loud, that doesn’t make them right.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called the decision “a mistake,” while Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham used increasingly creative language to get the president’s attention by relentlessly tweeting about how “ecstatic” the Iranians must be. Indeed, with every passing hour, establishment politicians and conventional foreign policy thinkers are deploying increasingly desperate arguments to make their case about why American boots still need to be on the ground in Syria.
Curiously, they never seem to have a realistic end-game in mind. Let’s dispel some of the myths they are propagating.
1. U.S. Credibility Will Be Eroded
The American people are often told that the United States is only as effective around the world as it is credible. Yet credibility is a subjective term, a politically appealing instrument interventionists invoke when they have no better argument to make. As my colleague Benjamin Friedman wrote back in 2014, “A good rule of thumb for foreign policy is that if someone tells you our credibility depends [on] doing something, it’s probably a bad idea.”
This rule applies in the case of Syria. Washington’s fixation on maintaining supposed credibility can easily lead to terrible foreign policy decisions of dubious import. History is full of examples when presidents, lawmakers, and national security hawks continued or escalated U.S. military involvement in an overseas conflict — Vietnam and Iraq being the two prominent case studies over the last 50 years. The result has almost always been bad for U.S. security, blinding us to the far more important discussion of whether intervention is actually worth the risk.
2. Iran and Russia Will Win
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez stated in a press conference: “To withdraw without success is failure. … If we leave, Russia and Iran dictate our strategic interests.” In other words: If the United States leaves, the mullahs and Vladimir Putin will swallow Syria whole.
What Menendez and many of his colleagues conveniently don’t mention is the context. For one, Syria’s political future has always been vastly more vital for Iran and Russia’s foreign policy interests than it has for the United States. Under no circumstances would Tehran and Moscow be open to Bashar al-Assad’s resignation; Assad may be a bloodthirsty, sinister, and incompetent dictator, but he was a useful proxy to both countries.
To the Iranians, Assad provided a strategic relationship in an otherwise indelibly hostile Arab world — a man who was willing to take cues from Tehran because his security often depended on doing so. For the Russians, Assad resembled a secular authoritarian who allowed the Russian navy to dock at Tartus, the only warm-water port Moscow had. Both Iran and Russia invested heavily in Syria’s civil war over the past seven years precisely because a post-Assad Syria would be a fundamental blow to both.
To the United States, however, Syria’s strategic position never really mattered. Washington does not require a cooperative Syria in order to fulfill its national security goals in the Middle East, including the establishment of a functional balance of power and defense of Americans from terrorist attacks. The bottom line is that the United States is well positioned regardless of whether Assad is in the presidential palace.
3. The Kurds Will Be Abandoned
While it’s understandable that Syrian Kurdish fighters are angry about the coming U.S. troop withdrawal — viewing any decrease as a betrayal after years of coordination in the field — the fact is that U.S.-Kurdish ties were never more than a tactical arrangement. The Syrian Kurds saw Washington’s airpower as a highly valuable asset to save their communities from further ISIS encroachment, and Washington views the Syrian Kurds as useful local forces to squeeze the organization’s territorial “caliphate.”
With ISIS vanquished from 99 percent of its former territory, the United States doesn’t have as much use for the relationship as it did four years ago. When the United States began military operations against ISIS, it never agreed to protect the Kurds in northeastern Syria in perpetuity. Nor did U.S. officials agree to support Kurds’ wider aspirations for autonomy. Calling a troop drawdown a betrayal suggests that Washington signed up to be Kurdish protectors for the indefinite future.
4. ISIS Will Regroup and Attack the U.S.
For the past 17 years of the war on terrorism, proponents of the status quo have claimed that the United States must fight terrorists “over there” so we don’t have to fight them “over here.” This is one of Graham’s favorite boilerplate lines, designed to muddy logic and foresight about the terrorism problem through fear-mongering and emotional pleas.
The notion that ISIS will experience an automatic resurgence after U.S. troops depart assumes that the other players in Syria’s conflict don’t have an interest in fighting the group. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. While the war in Syria can be enormously complicated to monitor from the outside, every player on the ground views ISIS as an enemy. Indeed, if there is one similarity that Assad, anti-Assad opposition fighters, Turkey, the Kurds, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pro-Assad Shia militias, and Russia have in common, it is ensuring ISIS does not regenerate to 2014 levels.
One can make a similar point with respect to Afghanistan. All of Afghanistan’s neighbors are invested in killing ISIS and al-Qaida terrorists, with or without 14,000 U.S. soldiers stationed on Afghan soil. If Trump ordered the U.S. military to significantly downsize in Afghanistan today — a real possibility, according to The Wall Street Journal — it’s highly likely the region would pick up the slack. In fact, with the United States no longer serving as a security guarantor, the region would have more incentive to get involved.
Over the next days and weeks, the American people will read columns and watch segments on television calling Trump’s Syria policy a sign of weakness and a dangerous mistake. They would be wise not to buy into it.
Syria was becoming a distraction to the Trump administration’s great-power strategy. By getting out of Syria, the United States nips further mission creep in the bud and refocuses the national security bureaucracy on the priorities that most significantly affect America’s security and economic prosperity.