Army Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida. Navy Chief Petty Officer Shannon M. Kent, 35, of Pine Plains, New York. Defense Intelligence Agency civilian Scott A. Wirtz, 42, of St. Louis, Missouri. Interpreter Ghadir Taher, 27, from East Point, Georgia.
The bodies of the four Americans from four separate parts of the country—victims of a January 16 Islamic State suicide bombing near a popular restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij—made their final return home to Dover Air Force Base on January 19. It was a vivid and graphic reminder to the American people that U.S. forces remain very much in harm’s way.
To the politicians back home, the deaths of four Americans in a Syrian town few in the United States could find on a map is a sign of ISIS’s sudden resurgence. The American people have been led to believe that President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria is emboldening the enemy. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the interventionist who has never seen a world problem that couldn’t be solved through military force, even suggested that Trump’s decision may have laid the groundwork for the bombing in Manbij. Sen. Jack Reed said the attack is proof the administration needs to “reevaluate” a troop departure.
Then there was Brett McGurk, who viewed Trump’s order as so detrimental to the counterterrorism effort that he resigned his position as U.S. envoy to the counter-ISIS coalition in protest. In a Washington Post editorial McGurk warned that the entire mission was now at risk of being jeopardized. “The president’s decision to leave Syria,” McGurk wrote, “was made without deliberation, consultation with allies or Congress, assessment of risk, or appreciation of facts.”
Despite his considerable experience, the former envoy—not to mention the more establishment-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill who continue to insist that an indefinite U.S. force presence in Syria is required—is missing the bigger picture. Here are the facts.
First, the Islamic State’s territorial “caliphate” is for all intents and purposes destroyed. At the height of its power in 2014, ISIS managed to control land roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. ISIS fighters were present from the northern outskirts of Baghdad to the rural towns of northwestern Syria. Approximately eight million people in Iraq and Syria were under ISIS’s thumb, a valuable financial asset the group fully exploited through a system of taxation.
Today, the physical caliphate is all but extinct. Military estimates put ISIS control at roughly 1 percent of its previous territory. The group is bottled up along the Middle Euphrates River Valley near the Iraq-Syria border, having been pushed out of Hajin in late December. U.S. troops have done exactly what they were ordered to do. With the mission completed, it is only logical for U.S. forces should be withdrawn without preconditions.
Those who say U.S. forces should remain in eastern Syria even after their primary mission is over are moving the goal-posts in a frantic attempt to justify a continued U.S. military presence in a country that is strategically unimportant to U.S. national security interests in the region. Don’t be fooled: the commentators, ex-officials, and lawmakers who oppose a U.S. troop withdrawal today are in essence arguing for another indefinite U.S. deployment in the Middle East.
Two, those in Washington who support a continued U.S. military presence in Syria are in effect admitting that they simply don’t understand the terrorist enemy they have fighting for the past 17 years.
While the U.S. military can certainly kill a lot of terrorists, what force cannot do is address the root causes of terrorism. Those causes are fundamentally political in nature and encompass everything from predatory governance, abusive security forces, pervasive sectarianism, ineffective bureaucracies, poor political leadership, menial economic opportunity, and extreme disconnect between the politicians at the top and the constituents they are supposed to be serving.
Terrorist groups like the Islamic State are an outgrowth of complex religious, cultural, and political power struggles that define the Middle East.. One of the primary reasons ISIS expanded so quickly in Iraq had less to do with a lack of U.S. “leadership” — a go-to talking point for a foreign policy establishment that has increasingly run out of ideas — and more to do with the utter contempt of the Iraqi Sunni population towards an oppressive, Shia-led government that treated them as terrorist sympathizers . The U.S. military cannot and indeed should not resolve these long-standing political and social problems. U.S. policy should focus on threats to the American people, not on the grievances of others.
If the U.S. experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria should have told our foreign policy elites anything, it is that Washington can’t resolve distant political problems—only the people who live in the region can. In fact, there is a case to be made that a continued U.S. military presence in Syria only lessens the urgency of regional leaders to address the political embers that fuel the terrorism problem.
Third, there is an unchallenged assumption in the Beltway that ISIS will regenerate as soon as U.S. troops pack up and leave. To accept this argument, however, is to accept the notion that regional stakeholders would sit on their hands and allow such a regeneration to actually occur. There is a long line of nations and groups ready to combat ISIS — including Syria, Iran, and Russia — all of which consider the organization a direct threat to their own security..
Arab governments are already making their own counterterrorism arrangements with one another. The Assad regime, for example, has authorized Iraqi warplanes to attack ISIS targets on Syrian soil without the express approval of Damascus. Egypt and Israel have been collaborating militarily against ISIS militants in the Sinai—a relationship Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi all but confirmed in a recent interview with 60 Minutes. The incentives for these kinds of tactical arrangements against a common enemy will increase without 2,000 American soldiers doing the heavy lifting for countries in the region.
Perhaps the most important point to make is that the Middle East was a violent, angry, and fractious place regardless before U.S. troops began operating in the region, and it will remain an angry and violent place after U.S. troops depart. The region is undergoing an extremely violent transformation, powered in part by centuries-long religious disputes and regional states that often use sectarianism as kindling in their battle for power.
There is no U.S. national security interest in placing American men and women in uniform in the middle of this contest. It is far more prudent, strategically wise, and cost-effective for Washington to stay diplomatically engaged with all powers in the Middle East while ensuring the region’s violence doesn’t harm Americans.
Nearly one month after Trump made his intentions about a U.S. withdrawal from Syria clear, the Washington foreign policy establishment remains largely opposed to it. Rather than listen to these voices, the president should listen to the realists and restrainers who, unlike “the blob,” are not responsible for a decade and a half of foreign policy disasters in the Middle East.