Syria’s Sunken Cost Fallacy: Not a Reason To Stay

I’m just old enough to remember a time – before 9/11 – when the death of a US soldier in combat was an exceptionally rare thing. Indeed, its hard not to look back fondly on those days of relative peace. Since then, nearly 7000 Americans – and perhaps half a million local civilians – have been killed in the wars for the Greater Middle East. Most of our fallen troopers, and all of the indigenous victims, are essentially nameless, faceless, forgotten. Sure, Americans "thank" their veterans, and display diligent adulation rituals at weekly sporting events, but most military casualties receive only a passing reference on the nightly news. War is the new normal after all, a standard fact of modern American life that’s far less interesting – and less lucrative – than reporting on the latest soap-opera-drama in the White House.

That’s why the detailed media attention on the latest bombing in Syria, which killed four Americans, is so notable. And strange. So why the sudden interest in individual troop deaths after 17+ years of aimless war? The answer, as is so often the case these days, is simple: Donald Trump. Last week’s fatal attack, and another attempted bombing this Monday, happened to occur on the heels of the president’s controversial announcement of a total troop withdrawal from Syria. Make no mistake: that’s the only reason these tragic deaths happen to matter to the mainstream media outlets and a slew of suddenly interested congressmen.

Before the families of the fallen were even notified, and prior to the release of the service-members’ names, a cacophony of voices flooded the big three TV news outlets to express concern and shamelessly use these deaths to attack the president. Their argument: ISIS attack us so now we have to stay put in Syria. Hawkish legislators – Dems and Republicans alike – claimed to know exactly what the latest attacks portend. Their conclusion, which is always their conclusion, was simple: more war, perpetual military intervention. It seems nearly every Beltway insider, media talking head, semi-retired general, and hawkish congressman immediately came to the same conclusion – that ISIS isn’t defeated and only prolonged U.S. military occupation can get the job done.

That analysis may seem ordinary in the perpetual American warfare state of 2019, but take a step back and it’s really a rather remarkable conclusion. Indeed, one might think that sacrificing four more of our over-adulated-troopers would instead add urgency to Mr. Trump’s announced exit and serve as proof positive that these endless wars aren’t worth the cost in blood and treasure. In a sane country, the latest attacks might even generate a soul-searching debate about broader military interventionism in a troubled region. No such luck. In our increasingly Orwellian moment, any event in the Mideast has the same solution: more troops for ever more time.

It all comes back to reflexive hatred of the president – any Trump policy must be foolish – and the general sunken cost fallacy. According to this absurd line of thinking, any sacrifice of American blood in Syria somehow justifies staying the course in order to honor said sacrifice. Hardly anyone pauses and takes this evaluation to its logical conclusion of literally endless war. Furthermore, a more rational analysis demonstrates why the very opposite may be true.

The fact that ISIS remains capable of conducting terror attacks should come as little surprise and hardly influence the strategic decision for the US military to stay or go. When the president declares ISIS "defeated," he isn’t totally off base. The Islamic State, as a physical entity, is, for the most part, vanquished. That, lest we forget, was the declared purpose of American military intervention in the first place. Later mission changes and justifications for a troop presence in Syria – containing Russia, protecting the Kurds, and checking Iran – were not only later additions but essentially impossible outcomes.

A mere two thousand US military advisors on the ground in Northeast Syria was never going to alter the outcome of Syria’s civil war (which the Assad regime has essentially won), force Russia or Iran to leave the country, or establish a permanent, viable Kurdish nation-state. American troops aren’t miracle workers and could, at best, delay the inevitable pro-Assad settlement in Syria. Nor could those US soldiers extinguish the ISIS ideology – which is, in part thanks to counterproductive American interventions – deeply embedded in the region. Islamist fighters, though not holding much physical territory, remain capable of terrorism and low-level insurgency – in Syria and across the Mideast. That’s just a reality. Inconvenient and uncomfortable, for sure, but true nonetheless.

The point is that the enemy, in this case ISIS, gets a vote. And their threshold for "victory" is much lower than that of the United States. To "win" ISIS need only survive as an ideology and rallying point for Islamist jihadis. On the other hand, Washington’s victory threshold – total erasure of the ISIS movement and elimination of Russian/Iranian influence – is essentially impossible. So long as those two thresholds remain so obviously out of balance, the war-hawks in D.C. will have a justification for their preferred policy of perpetual war. And, if they can bash Trump’s foreign policy in the process, more’s the better.

Which brings us back to ISIS’ latest attacks and the troublesome fact that the enemy has agency. Maybe the obvious explanation for the surge in violence actually does cohere with the hawk’s analysis: that ISIS is trying to force the US military out, embarrass the president, and claim victory by forcing the withdrawal. Perhaps. Then again, what if the enemy’s calculus is a bit more complex, a shade cleverer? What if ISIS wants the US military to stay put in Syria, and hopes a few well-timed attacks may sway the president to change course? After all, ISIS’ remaining fighters won’t fare better under the inevitable future attacks from Assad, his allies, and maybe even the Turks – all of whom loathe the Islamists as much as the US does. So a US withdrawal necessarily better for the Islamic State.

Indeed, ISIS has a consistent playbook for survival and recruiting that they’ve used since forming in Iraq so many years ago. It goes like this: tie down the US military in a prolonged quagmire and then rally a coalition of Islamist hardliners and frustrated nationalists to oppose the occupation. It’s a formula that’s worked time and again – In Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.

Only it doesn’t have to be that way this time. Nothing is inevitable. The president can stand firm, withdraw the troops from an aimless, risky civil war and refuse (for once) to play into the enemy’s hands. He can recognize that from its dubiously legal start the Syria intervention was all risk and no reward and stay on the sensible track of rapid withdrawal. Should he do so, expect mainstream interventionist pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle to consistently attack him. That’s just fine.

After all, whenever a policy upsets both hawkish Republicans and Dems, it just might be the prudent path.

Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to 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 2019 Danny Sjursen