Mark my words: an American soldier will soon die for next to nothing in Syria. Here’s a mission that takes all the absurdity of America’s post-9/11 wars of choice to their logical conclusion. As such, this muddled and aimless operation must stand forever tall in the pantheon of U.S. foreign policy folly – right up there with the three Seminole Wars (1817-18, 1835-42, 1855-58, 1,608 dead troops); Nicaraguan "Banana Wars" (1910, 1912-25, 1927-33, 159 dead); the Russian Civil War’s "Siberia” intervention (1918-20, 424 dead); "Desert One" botched Iran hostage rescue (1980, 8 dead); Beirut "peacekeeping" (1982-84, 265 dead); the Grenada invasion (1983, 19 dead); and Somalia (1992-94, 43 dead). So, in Trump’s defense – and that of the Washington crowd that’s repeatedly pressured him to stay the Syria course – his latest folly is in good company.
Of course, US service-members have already died in Syria – about ten so far. Not that many Americans much noticed. When the last soldier died in a "very unfortunate mishap," General Kenneth P. Ekman, deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (the ongoing mission in Iraq and Syria) assured reporters that there were "no indications that any Russian activity existed in the area" or that the patrol was "anything other than a normal patrol." Have no fear though, since Ekman added that the deceased was "important to the mission."
Well now, amidst a whole range of post-Russiagate alarmism, an Afghan "bounty" scandal that wasn’t, and in response to the (gasp!) Russian “ramming” of an American party three weeks ago, Washington is sending in reinforcements to buck up that US military non-mission in Syria. This ought to up the odds of another service-member dying for nothing, or, if we’re really lucky – kick off an unnecessary shooting war with the world’s only other nuclear superpower. Either way, we’ll largely have the Trump-obsessed Democrats and hawkish establishment Republicans to blame.
So what sort of cavalry is inbound to save the day and – per the New York Times headline – "counter the Russians" in Syria? You guessed it: just enough to get a handful of Americans killed and/or spark a foolish fight, but far too few to change the combat calculus on the ground. Wait for it now. The Pentagon just added about 100 troops – some mechanized infantry, Sentinel radar and an increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols – to the existent 500 or so soldiers in Syria. Striking!
Well, what will they do there exactly? Demonstrate "US resolve to defend Coalition forces in the [Eastern Syria Security Area], and to ensure that they are able to continue their Defeat-ISIS mission without interference," according to the lifeless email language of US Central Command spokesman Navy Captain Bill Urban. But wait – I thought this essential infusion of troops was meant to counter the nefarious Russians. No, no, Uncle Sam only sends its armed peacemakers 6,000 miles from home to defend themselves, God, country, and worldwide freedom, naturally. After all, Urban added, "The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend Coalition forces if necessary." That’s refreshing.
This much is increasingly, if disturbingly, clear: the folks reporting, advising, and crafting strategy for Syria, haven’t the faintest idea about what’s really going on there. Seriously, it’s no longer mandatory for pundits, politicians, or policymakers to know any things about Syria in order to tell us what to think, and decide what to do in our name.
The cycle of farce goes something like this: partisan self-styled "experts" gin up an ostensible interest in a far-flung land; then send in some troops, who enter a confusing complexity that looks nothing like they’d been briefed; a few get killed; their bodies are flown in the night to that ubiquitous Dover, Delaware airbase; then, either no one notices nor remembers why they’d been deployed in the first place, or chickenhawk pundits and politicians wave their flag-draped coffins to blame Russia, Iran, or whichever "enemy" favor-of-the-moment will win them partisan points. Rinse and repeat – devastated mothers and spouses from forgotten corners of America be damned!
So back to that inevitably future dead American soldier(s). Let us review just what he or she will die for exactly when his or her vehicle accidentally rolls over, aircraft crashes, patrol is bombed, or a futile firefight goes south. Well there’s always the ISIS-defeat sub-mission (disingenuously billed as Inherent Resolve’s inherent resolution raison d’être) – but the caliphate is kaput and the pervading presence of America’s infidel crusaders only justifies the jihadis lingering terror campaign. Then there’s the mission that speaks Trump’s language – protecting the corrupt and illegal concessions of Delta Crescent Energy. In other words staying on in Syria, "only for the oil" – according to the president. Of course, it’s not much oil – only an anemic 24,000 barrels per day – something like 1/500th the daily output of Saudi Arabia. So that by itself won’t do.
Enter the establishment favorite mission not-so-secretly proffered by foreign policy insiders in-the-know: "Stay in Syria to Counter Iran” (a Republican congressman in The Hill); for "as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders" (former National-Security Adviser John Bolton); lest we "hand northern Syria to Turkey" as a "gift to Russia, Iran, and ISIS" (per former Syria special envoy, Brett McGurk, in CNBC); otherwise, "Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void" (New York Times).
All of which amounts to what a rare astute Atlantic headline diagnosed as "America’s Indefinite Endgame in Syria." And that’s just what this madness is – an indefinite, intractable intervention without any positive prospects or exit strategy to speak of. In other words, par for the strategically senseless post-9/11 American course.
You know, I remember all the right-wing (and alarmist, if not altogether inaccurate) pejorative pronouncements about a "feckless” President Barack Obama. Yet what if not feckless should we call a current commander-in-chief who’s repeatedly – and ironically – allowed himself to be bullied into maintaining multiple Mideast missions he’s persistently promised to end? I thought The Donald was supposed to be a tough guy, a truth-teller, a system-shaker, and altogether above the swamp-like establishment fray. That was all bunk – as oughta been obvious from Jump Street.
No, President Trump’s foreign policy is at best a vaguely transactional web of ignorance, insecurity and cognitive dissonance. Heck, this new deployment came on the same day the man declared that American troops "are out of Syria," except to guard oil fields – "Other than that, we are out of Syria." Plus, none of Trump’s meager troop and equipment infusions have a chance in hell of deranged Democrats made mad by the smell of impending electoral blood.
It’s too very late for all that. No, the opposition-in-waiting has already seized on the vehicle-ramming-episode to reemphasize Trump’s supposed failure to challenge Moscow’s meddling, over-hyped electoral interference, and unproven bounty program in Afghanistan (evidence for this "searched for" but as yet unseen, per, you know, Gen. Frank McKenzie, US military commander of the entire Middle East).
In fact, Trump’s current Syria reinforcement comes three full weeks after his November opponent Joe Biden rebuked him in a Pennsylvania speech for failing to publicly address the Russia-"altercation" in Syria: "Did you hear the president say a single word? Did he lift one finger?" Yet now that The Donald has acquiesced to lifting about 100 (sets of ten) extra troop fingers in the region, don’t expect any applause, retractions, or rebuke-relief from his opponents in both wings of the hawkish duopoly. And whatever you do, don’t expect anything approaching victory, meaningful improvement, or even marginal alteration of the facts on the Syrian ground as a result of a few additional armored vehicles, radars, and combat aircraft sorties. The mission remains a quixotic quagmire – as all asinine adventures must.
All the while, in reading the key mainstream media headlines and obligatory politician soundbites on this latest Syria reinforcement, I’ve yet to hear tell of one salient, if inconvenient, fact: the Russians, unlike Uncle Sam’s usurpers, were invited to Syria. Now, I don’t think for a second that the host, Assad, is a do-gooder, or that Putin patronized the party out of the kindness of his heart. Still, General McKenzie’s word choice for his Russia-blaming last week felt strangely obtuse, yet uncritically accepted by his New York Times interviewers. "They [Russian troops] were in an area they were not supposed to be," he said. "They were not in an area that they had received permission to go to. And their actions were frankly reckless at the tactical level." Says who? Permission from whom? – one might ask, in a country with a truly independent and oppositional free press.
Oh, and here’s another tidbit to ruminate over: the Assad regime’s Moscow/Tehran-assisted de facto victory in the Syrian Civil War is hardly a setback for "core US interests." Rather, it amounts to little more than the pre-2011 status quo. Assad’s relationships with Russia and Iran are decades old, and the Washington never had much influence or interest in Damascus anyway. The original (purported) mission in Syria is now obsolete.
The Islamic State’s physical caliphate is history, and none of the players in Syria’s conflict cornucopia would countenance its reprise – not Assad, Putin, Khameini, nor the Kurds; heck, probably not even Turkey’s Erdogan. Postwar Syria is a broken mess, a less serviceable ally for Moscow or Tehran, and a Levantine land full of risks and without detectable reward. So, let’s keep our troops out of needless harm’s way, and let the "bad boys" have the place.
Finally, take a breath and remember the trivial scale of what this latest reinforcement is actually immediately responding to. No shots were fired in a side-swiping road rage incident on Syria’s Mad Max-like roads. As a result, seven American troops – who shouldn’t have been in the damn country in the first place – were treated for concussion-like symptoms and have already returned to duty.
Per McKenzie, again: "What saved the situation was the very good judgment of small unit US Army commanders on the ground…I’m just glad I got those kind of people out there making decisions." Well, ole Kenneth now has 100 more good people of sound judgment to order around in this meaningless maelstrom.
Some are bound to get killed. Thanks
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at 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 and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen