"Impulsive, irresponsible, and dangerous." Such was the way, just this morning on CNN, that Democratic Representative, and House Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer described President Trump’s recent announcement that he’s bringing home the 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria. Last night, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham – a true hawk’s hawk – declared on the Senate floor that Trump’s decision is a "disaster," and a "stain on the honor of the United States." Two points here, one minor, one major – let’s begin with a semantic quibble: when maintaining national "honor" becomes a last ditch argument for continuing indecisive, perpetual war, perhaps it really is time to leave. And, more importantly, there’s this: anytime that Steny Hoyer and Lindsay Graham are in agreement and share a disdain for a foreign policy decision – even a Trump decision – well, then, the president might just be on to something.
My point is this: the bipartisan interventionist/militarist consensus of centrist Dems and hawkish Republicans has brought only disaster, death, humanitarian crisis, exploding debt and endless war for nearly two decades. For ample evidence see Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, etc. So, why are we still listening to these folks? Well, partly because the United States is an increasingly militarized (ostensible) republic in which a world-leading domestic arms industry all but owns Congress and the corporate media. Then there’s the matter of Trump – a man that the bipartisan Washington establishment simply loathes. Indeed, The Donald can do no right as far as these folks are concerned. Now, few authors – especially serving on active-duty in the military – have been as (constructively) critical of this president as I have, but occasionally the man demonstrates good sense, especially in foreign affairs. Fairness demands that we recognize this, whatever we think of the president’s general personality.
Let us return, then, to Syria, and take Representative Hoyer’s assessment apart one piece at a time. In point of fact there was nothing particularly "impulsive" about President Trump’s announcement. More than six months ago, in May, he announced that the US military would be withdrawing from Syria "like, very soon." In fact, arguably the only reason American troops have remained in the country as long as they have can be attributed to poor advice from the last "adult-in-the-room," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Candidate Trump ran on a largely anti-interventionist platform, and – during the Obama presidency – regularly tweeted that the US should "stay out" of Syria. So there’s nothing exceptionally impulsive or surprising about Trump’s latest decision on troop withdrawal.
Next, Hoyer called Trump’s decision "irresponsible." But is it, really? One could, in fact, argue the exact opposite. Besides the originally stated mission to defeat ISIS’s physical caliphate – which has essentially been accomplished – ever more expansive, unachievable, and flimsy justifications for a perpetual US troop presence in Syria have begun to creep in. Trump’s own cabinet members, and the usual (perennially wrong) Beltway insiders have alternately argued that America must stay in Syria to check Russia, counter Iran, deter Turkey, protect the Kurds, and on and on. No one, not Trump nor his "grown-up" advisors, seemed capable of articulating a cogent, sustainable strategy or communicating an exit strategy. And military occupation of a sovereign country – sanctioned neither by the US Congress nor the United Nations – ought to be driven by more than policy inertia.
Only that’s become the norm in US Mideast policy. We stay because we don’t know what else to do – remaining not for positivist goals but out of fear of negativist what-ifs. When policy goals are muddled and end-states unclear, now that’s "irresponsible." If Trump’s team can’t enunciate a vital national interest in maintaining a military intervention – which they’ve proven time and again that they can’t – then the president has a duty to pull the plug on the latest forever war.
Then there’s Hoyer’s claim – echoed by Senator Graham, every pundit on CNN and MSNBC, and just about every vacuous D.C. analyst – that pulling out of Syria is "dangerous." It’s not, or, put another way, it’s at least less dangerous than staying. This author has argued for over a year that Syria is the next great Middle East trap, all risk and no reward for the United States. Let’s review just why this is. Here’s what the US stands to gain by staying put in Syria – a temporary denial of Assad and his allies’ forces entering the country’s far east, a limited zone of unsustainable Kurdish autonomy, and tough-guy bragging rights on the international scene.
Up against this are the truly "dangerous" – and arguably unacceptable – risks of perpetual military occupation. As if the latest (unnecessary) iteration of Cold War with Russia in Eastern Europe isn’t treacherous enough, in Syria today US troops (and allies) face-off with Russian troops (and their allies) on an unstable front along the Euphrates River. Despite some limited deconfliction measures in place, we now know that American and Russian soldiers have – according to the special US ambassador – exchanged gunfire "more than once" along this precarious boundary. In one particularly disturbing incident several months back, US airstrikes killed "dozens" of Russian mercenaries in a four-hour battle. Luckily Putin showed restraint after that exchange. Can we count on that in the future? Who knows. What’s certain is that Russia holds the stronger hand in Syria, has been invited there by Assad, and possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. De-escalation seems more than prudent given these undeniable truths.
Then there’s the minor matter of Turkey, a treaty ally with the second-largest army in NATO. President Erdogan has repeatedly threatened US troops, actually invaded Northern Syria, and refuses to recognize any sort of Kurdish autonomous entity (and he never will). All this bluster led the Pentagon, in November, to announce a new strategy of placing outposts along the Turkish border to deter Ankara. Tell me how this risky "strategy" contributes to the stated mission of US troops in Syria – the defeat of ISIS? It doesn’t. Again, plentiful risk, scant reward.
Finally, if 17+ years of indecisive war in the Greater Middle East should have taught Washington anything, it’d be this: prolonged ground-force occupation of sovereign Islamic states or regions is ultimately counterproductive. The longer the US stays in Syria – or anywhere for that matter – the greater the chance of an outbreak of armed insurgency. Turns out (gasp!) that folks don’t appreciate being occupied by a foreign superpower. Sure, the Kurds want our protection, but Eastern Syria is home to more than just a Kurdish minority. Indefinite US military presence could enflame Sunni tribal hostilities, reestablishing that perilous, if ubiquitous, alliance between nationalist Sunnis and Islamist jihadis – something we’ve seen percolate in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And just wait: should such an insurgency break out – and I predict it eventually would – well then the Pentagon and professional DC pundits would tell us we have to stay and sprinkle some magic counterinsurgency dust on that new enemy. It is thus that America’s post-9/11 wars have become self-sustaining quagmires.
US strategy, especially military strategy, should be undergirded by realism, policy sobriety, and facts. And here’s the most relevant, if inconvenient, fact: Bashar al-Assad’s regime – backed by Iran and Russia – has already won the civil war. Nothing the US has done, can do, or is willing to try, will change that salient truth. The endgame in Syria – just as in Afghanistan someday soon – will be messy, uncomfortable, and optically unsettling. Syria will remain what it’s been for half-a-century, a minor "adversary’s" ally stably situated in the Russian and, to a lesser extent, Iranian camp. So it has been and so it shall remain. Assad’s Syria is eminently containable – as is Iran, for that matter – and presents no existential threat or vital interest to U.S. security. Indeed, though Assad is undoubtedly a monster, his secular regime is actually more likely to suppress transnational terror threats than a divided Syria at war with itself. Extremism feeds on instability and division – precisely what continued American military intervention would ensure.
It is long past time to leave behind childish things – excessive optimism, sentimentality (for the Kurds, for example), and the foolish fantasy of America’s special mission to transform the world – in the interest of sound strategy. Love Trump or hate him, his decision on Syria is neither "impulsive," "irresponsible," or unacceptably "dangerous." The president is delivering on his – albeit muddled – campaign promise to eschew risky interventionism and put American interests first in foreign policy. Let us give credit where credit is do.
Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen