“Trump Criticized For Breaking With Longstanding American Tradition Of Remaining In Middle Eastern Countries Indefinitely,” joked the Babylon Bee upon the news President Donald Trump is bringing troops home from Syria, but the joke wasn’t far from the truth at all.
The news deeply angered the Washington foreign policy consensus, which argues that troops should stay in the region indefinitely even though the stated mission of defeating ISIS has been accomplished.
It’s true that Trump’s decision to depart Syria was sudden and poorly communicated. Viewed one way, however, it was not a complete surprise. Since at least 2013, Trump has repeatedly argued against the idea we need a sustained conflict in Syria:
During the campaign, he reiterated his views. But then he started sounding quite different, including getting belligerent with Russia over Syria:
Just a few weeks prior to that last tweet, Trump said he’d bring troops home very soon and laid out a bit of the rationale publicly in the video from March below:
Both before and since March, his military and diplomatic advisors have pushed a radically different strategy than the one he promised voters. Various administration officials and their allies in the media have argued for a new strategy and a continued presence in Syria, saying that the United States needed to make sure Iran left the area, that the defeat of ISIS was a suspiciously undefined “enduring,” and that the United States played a role in post-war peace.
Syria envoy (and vocal Never Trumper) Jim Jeffrey recently told reporters that the Trump administration was shifting its policy in Syria and would remain indefinitely. He said “we are not in a hurry to pull out” and that Trump was “on board” with the new approach. Obama holdover Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, also said President Trump was on board with a military presence in Syria that had literally no end in sight.
This portion of a December 11 press conference brought to mind the U.S. presence in Iraq:
QUESTION: We’re talking about years?
MR MCGURK: Not going to put a timeline on it at all.
QUESTION: Well, you seem to say – sorry.
MR PALLADINO: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Me? Brett, you seem to say the military’s objective is the enduring defeat of ISIS. So does that not mean, then, given the qualification of enduring defeat – does that not mean that American soldiers will remain in Syria for some time unforeseen, into the unforeseen future, even after the physical caliphate is totally wiped off the map?
MR MCGURK: I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.
The United States claimed its goal in Syria was to defeat ISIS. That has happened, so the goalposts are now being shifted to endless defeat of ISIS, a standard by which no war would ever be won, no victory ever claimed. With Wednesday’s announcement, Trump’s campaign pledges returned to the discussion.
“This is a good decision made in a bad way, through a process nobody would want to emulate,” said Benjamin Friedman of the defense think tank Defense Priorities in a call with reporters on Wednesday. That’s a good summation of the overall situation. The process has been an embarrassment and the communication of it outright contradictory, but the overall effect of departing Syria is sound.
Here are some arguments against an endless presence in the region.
‘Enduring Defeat’ Means Endless War
As noted above, proponents of sustained involvement in Syria changed the goal of our presence there from “defeat of ISIS” to “enduring defeat” of ISIS. Enduring is a very non-specific word that makes it easier to change the metrics of success and avoid political accountability for our warfighting efforts. It’s a word that suggests no time constraints by definition.
For much of its 17-year history (Yes! 17 years!), the war in Afghanistan went by the name Operation Enduring Freedom. But that operation also covered operations as far away as the Trans-Sahara and the Philippines. It was generally about the “Global War on Terror.”
But while you can go to war with a country or particular group, you can’t go to war against a method of killing. You can’t defeat it in the conventional use of the term, and using traditional nomenclature and paradigms for non-traditional opponents can further confuse the strategy. When you use fuzzy qualitative terms you make defining victory impossible. And you cannot win a war if you don’t define victory before you begin. And if you cannot define victory, you’re ensuring your own defeat.
When Trump-style critics were saying to avoid too much involvement in Syria lest it become an endless situation, they were told that the military action was very specific and manageable: the defeat of ISIS. But now that ISIS has been defeated in Syria, the proponents of Syrian involvement have changed the metric to “endless defeat.” That’s a mighty convenient change, but an unfair one to the American people who bear the physical and financial costs of warfighting there.
This change to “enduring defeat” is an obvious ploy to expand the war into the nation-building situation that has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Don’t Follow Iran’s Lead
Some Syria hawks say that the United States should stay in Syria until Iran leaves. There are a few problems with this argument, although they do reveal that the new push in Syria isn’t about Syria so much as a desire to constrain Iran.
Constraining Iran might be a good idea, but doing it in Syria is not particularly efficient or necessary. Iran and Syria have been involved for decades and as regional neighbors will always be in each other’s sphere of influence, even if Syria doesn’t have much to gain in terms of natural resources. Making the U.S. decision on when it leaves the region contingent on Iranian action apart from national interest holds the United States hostage to others’ strategy.
Just as they have failed to define what “enduring defeat” of ISIS constitutes, so too have they failed to define what a successful constraining of Iran looks like. At what point is Iran successfully constrained in a way that would necessitate the removal of troops under their own metrics?
Don’t Risk Proxy War With Russia
Since Russia is heavily involved with the region, and frequently behaves adversarially toward the United States, some Syria hawks say the United States must have a strong military presence to essentially fight Russia. But it’s usually a good idea to not get too belligerent with nuclear powers.
Already there have been multiple dangerous engagements this year that risked an escalation with the country. Russia, like Iran, was actually invited into Syria by Bashar Assad. The trio of frustrating countries have been friendly with each other for many years. Our presence of a few thousand troops is unlikely to change that situation, so it’s unclear what the precise objective vis-a-vis Russia is.
In a November interview with Russian media that should have received much more attention, Jeffrey was asked about the February firefight in Deir ez-Zor where up to 200 Russian casualties were reported. Jeffrey said that such skirmishes have occurred “about a dozen times” in Syria, “some involving exchange of fire, some not.”
In her primary and general campaigns, Hillary Clinton argued for enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, which many worried would lead to a proxy war with Russia. Keeping a peace is a delicate balance. If a war with Russia must be fought, is Syria really the legitimate cause to rally behind?
Still others say that the United States must perpetually support the Kurds, an oppressed minority in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Kurds might reasonably wish the United States were to continue in the region, since the two groups partnered for the purpose of destroying ISIS’s control of the region. That does not mean that all political projects of the Kurds must be supported, particularly those that are regional and not in the national interest of the United States.
In a thoughtful piece lamenting the situation for the Kurds, Eli Lake quoted Jeffrey acknowledging that reality. He recently told The Atlantic Council, “We do not have permanent relationships with substate entities.” That is true and it’s just the reality of the situation, even if the United States should encourage the region to develop good political situations for the Kurds.
The reality is that Assad has won the civil war and the Kurds have already begun negotiating with him. We can play a role there, but do not owe them endless protection. There is no need to completely ignore Syria’s post-war order, and the United States has many outposts in the region, but that doesn’t require further military action.
Another argument is that the future might involve the resurgence of ISIS so the United States should just never leave. It is true that the future is unknown and might involve a resurgence of an Islamist caliphate, in Syria or elsewhere. There might be very particular reasons to return to Syria or another location where the instability arises, such as responding to a terrorist plot. But that does not translate into a proven case for an endless presence involving nation-building or proxy wars.
Some members of Congress were upset by the departure from Syria. One Republican advisor tweeted, “When one branch of the federal government surprises another on a national security issue, it transmits to friend and foe we don’t have our act together.” Well, if Congress seeks to authorize a war in Syria, it has every right to do so and every tool at its disposal.
Rod Dreher noted on Twitter that NPR couldn’t find any Americans to broadcast in opposition to continued warfighting in Syria. The posture in DC seems to be that since everyone in DC wants to continue there, and Afghanistan, and all the other countries we’re in, that Americans want that, too. Well, if that’s true, than it should be no trouble at all.
There is a bit of constitutional conflict, in that Article 1, Section 8 gives Congress the power to declare war while Article II, Section 2 gives the president the power to direct the military. Congressional debates are an excellent way to inform the public about the costs, benefits, strategy, and timelines of war. They should employ them and reassert their authority.
If there is a good case to be made for fighting the war in Syria, they should make it and get the American approval behind it.
The burden of proof in these efforts should not be with those who seek to return American troops home to their families after the successful vanquishing of a foe, but on those who seek to continue a conflict with no timeline or clear strategy. That is particularly true in the case where recent wars have not had a clear strategy or plan for victory and departure, as their endless nature proves.