The United States tore itself apart with extraordinary violence 160 years ago. Around 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, which would be about eight million dead today. It is an experience no American should want to go through again.
Yet U.S. policymakers seem drawn to foreign conflicts like moths to light. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton unaccountably made brutal battles in Lebanon, Somalia, and the Balkans Washington’s own. George W. Bush turned Iraq into a civil war and joined Afghanistan’s long-running conflict. Barack Obama escalated in Afghanistan, returned to Iraq after leaving, and racked up involvement in three additional bitter conflicts: Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Donald Trump kept the US fighting in all of them, though he launched a last-minute bid to withdraw from the longest one, Afghanistan.
So tired of enduring "endless wars" was the American public that even candidate Joe Biden promised to halt them. But will he? Or will this pledge, like the promises of so many other presidents, end up down the fabled memory hole?
A decade ago the "Arab Spring" swept the Middle East. Protests in Tunisia upended the dictator and led to a democracy which survives against the odds. In Egypt the autocrat also was ousted and a democratic election for president was held. However, the Saudis and Emiratis underwrote the generals, who retook control, creating an even more brutal tyranny that killed hundreds and imprisoned tens of thousands. The Gulf monarchies generally recognized the threat and opened their treasuries to dampen revolutionary sentiments. Bahrain invited Emirati and Saudi troops to back a vicious crackdown on protesters and guarantee the authoritarian Sunni monarchy’s survival, along with its rule over a majority Shia population.
Most dramatic were Libya and Syria, where peaceful protests turned into civil wars. In the former the US and Europe promoted regime change after making a misleading pitch for United Nations authority to protect civilians. The dictator was killed but the country was wrecked and fighting continued for a decade. Another attempt at a unity government is currently in process.
And there was Syria.
It began with peaceful protests, though the ultimate aims of the demonstrators were disputed. Religious minorities, having seen US military intervention turn Iraq into a national charnel house by removing the secular dictator, leaned toward President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Washington first called him a "reformer" and then insisted that he be ousted, radicalizing both sides and discouraging negotiation. Hopes for a political settlement went a-glimmering.
The opposition splintered. US efforts to create, arm, and train a moderate army floundered, with extremists, funded by several Gulf states, coming to dominate the insurgency. Assad’s rule shuddered under pressure, but he gradually retook most of the country with support from Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Washington’s efforts ultimately aided jihadists, including the local al-Qaeda affiliate. Only a few years after 9/11 the US helped deliver Idlib to the latter group’s not-so-tender rule, which currently is buttressed by Turkey. Journalist Mehdi Hasan observed: "those responsible for arming and backing some of Syria’s most thuggish rebel groups include – among many others – the government of the United States."
Washington also intervened directly against the Islamic State. Backed by American airpower a mix of forces led by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces ultimately defeated ISIS, eliminating its physical "caliphate" and capturing its capital of Raqqa. However, Ankara, which initially aided ISIS, and allied Islamist insurgents later attacked the Kurds.
The Islamic State’s 2017 defeat ended any meaningful role for US troops. Yet members of Washington’s bipartisan war party descended en masse upon President Donald Trump, lobbying to keep the US in yet another of the endless wars he had denounced. Indeed, some used positions of trust to put personal preference before the nation’s interest. For instance, Ambassador James Jeffrey, an anti-Trumper bizarrely entrusted with implementing the administration’s Syria policy, admitted manipulating the president, "playing shell games" to mislead the latter and the country about the number and purpose of America’s deployment. Last year Jeffrey was tapped to chair a program at the Wilson Center.
Today without legal authority several hundred Americans occupy about of a third of Syria. The force is tasked with a variety of unrealistic, even ludicrous purposes, none of which justify the illegal occupation of another nation and dangerous confrontation with multiple, largely hostile, armed forces.
Syria is not and never has been an important American interest. Damascus mattered little to Washington even when a Soviet client during the Cold War. Years ago the country was militarily gelded by Israel, and of late does little to inhibit the latter’s air and missile strikes against Iranian positions in Syria. As Steven A. Cook of the Council of Foreign Relations observed, this experience suggests "that the Israelis are capable of taking care of themselves in the Syrian conflict."
Washington cited the need to prevent the Islamic State’s revival, but that group’s power has been broken. Now every government in the region, save, perhaps, Ankara, is committed to suppressing ISIS. Ending Washington’s continuing war on Damascus also would leave that battered regime better able to thwart any attempted caliphate revival.
Another professed US objective is ejecting Russia and Iran from Syria. Fears of Russian influence ignore the fact that the Moscow-Damascus relationship goes back decades and the US enjoys overwhelming regional dominance. Iran’s role in Syria, though malign, is essentially defensive and limited by Israel. The expectation that a few hundred Americans operating illegally amid the detritus of war can oust ground and air forces of Russia, a longtime treaty ally of Damascus, and irregulars and materiel from Iran, Syria’s closest regional partner for years, is preposterous. So is the belief that it is America’s responsibility to interrupt a "land bridge" connecting Iran and Syria’s government. Such access would change little: the lack of one has not prevented Tehran from supporting the Assad government so far.
Contending with other powers creates risks that far outrange any conceivable benefits. US personnel have endured vehicular jousting matches with Moscow’s military. Americans also have been fired on by Syrian personnel and Russian mercenaries, who are there legally, and Turkish soldiers, who at least can claim to be protecting their nation’s security. The violence could escalate. Turks and Syrians have fought and combat incidents between Turks and Kurds are increasing. Illegally occupying Syrian territory and needlessly confronting several different armed forces risks lives and retaliation for no good reason.
The worst purpose of all, which most appealed to Trump, was to steal Syria’s oil. He imagined US energy companies establishing operations in a warzone, managing another country’s oil installations without authorization, transporting stolen resources through multiple warring factions, and selling war booty in international markets. That might appeal to a New York City real estate tycoon, but not international energy executives. Other presidential aides merely hoped to divert revenue from Damascus to the Kurds, without the slightest warrant in American or international law.
Indeed, administration officials used Trump’s oil fixation to preserve a presumptively permanent presence to guard Syria’s Kurds, claiming that the latter were owed protection arising from the battle against ISIS. However, the Islamic State’s putative caliphate threatened Kurds, not America; they fought, with US assistance, for themselves, not America. Washington had no plausible obligation to protect Kurds beyond battles fought against ISIS, especially involving Turkey, a US treaty ally of nearly seven decades, with security interests in Syria. (There is good reason to toss Ankara out of NATO, but at present it is a member in good standing.)
Anyway, military commanders were not empowered to extend defense guarantees to other peoples, no matter how worthy the latter may seem. To make the Kurdish enclave known as Rojava a formal ally under US protection would require the president to negotiate, and the Senate to ratify, a treaty to that effect. Which isn’t going to happen, since forever entangling America in the Syrian conflict would be beyond foolish.
Thus, Washington’s involvement is but a temporary palliative for the Kurds. Robert S. Ford, a former ambassador to Syria now at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, observed: "Unable to support itself, the autonomous zone will remain dependent on US resources for the foreseeable future." Better for the Kurds to make a deal with Damascus, retaining some autonomy and cooperating against any Islamic State revival while putting the Syrian army on the border, separating them from Turkey. Moscow could help broker the deal, since it shares Syria’s desire to spur America’s military exit.
That leaves the goal of ousting Assad. America’s troop presence is backed by immiserating economic sanctions, explicitly designed to impoverish the population and prevent reconstruction. Washington failed to deliver the coup de grace militarily when Assad appeared to be on the ropes, so now it hopes to force his surrender by starving his people. This policy is as stupid as it is immoral.
Assad’s regime is repressive and murderous, and he bears much blame for the tragic conflict. However, he never threatened America or Europe or in practice even Israel. Moreover, guilt is widely shared. Syria suffered not a genocide, as some claimed, but a bitter, multi-sided civil war in which multiple parties fought and died. Most were awful and some, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, potentially threatened the US and Europe. All combatants contributed to the estimated half million deaths. So did the groups’ foreign patrons, including America, which backed most any group of most any ideology so long as it opposed Assad, thereby prolonging the war.
Was it theoretically possible for Washington – meaning the arrogant but maladroit policymakers who had successively destroyed Iraq and Libya and would go on to support Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen – to act competently and swiftly, separate genuine and faux liberals, funnel aid to fighters committed to creating tolerant social order and political system, defeat Assad, his Iranian and Russian allies, ISIS, al-Nusra, and other jihadists and assorted bad actors, and successfully establish a stable Western-style democracy? Sure, miracles are always possible! Especially in the Middle East, the origin of the three great monotheistic faiths.
But was such a wondrous event ever likely? Not just no, but hell no. Nor is one any more likely today. Assad’s demise was widely predicted. For much of the conflict the insurgency was lodged in the suburbs of Damascus, just a few minutes’ drive from the center of Syria’s capital. However, Assad survived a decade of war. Having defeated his enemies while being vilified around the world, why would he leave now?
It doesn’t matter that Washington believes he should quit. He won’t. And absent launching an Iraq-style invasion, the US has no means to force him to do so. Despite the professed concern for oppressed Syrians, sanctions under the Caesar Act are being applied primarily to allow American lawmakers to proudly preen for the cameras, not to free Syria.
Observed Independent columnist Patrick Cockburn: the legislation "was supposedly aimed at Assad and his regime, but there was never any reason to believe that it would destabilize them or compel them to ease repression. Since they hold power, they are well placed to control diminished resources. As with the 13 years of UN sanctions directed against Saddam Hussein between 1990 and 2003, the victims were not the dictator and his family but the civilian population. Iraqi society was shattered, with results that are still with us, and the same is now happening in Syria."
True, the regime presumably is fragile – ravaged country, ruined economy, impoverished people, cosseted elite, brutalized population, and enervated military. Hostility toward the Assad dynasty has been savagely suppressed not eradicated, and resistance has broken out again in some areas. However, many seemingly brittle regimes, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea, have survived long past their expected collapse dates. And an implosion is more likely to deliver renewed civil war and intensified foreign intervention than peace and prosperity.
Continued US occupation of Syria serves no rational purpose. Will the new administration extricate America? Although Biden has offered few thoughts on the issue, his secretary of state reportedly believes the Obama administration, in which he served, should have done more. It is too late for a redo but hope burns eternal in some liberal interventionists.
Biden’s campaign position on Syria was sufficiently ambiguous to commit him simultaneously to do a lot and a little: "Biden would recommit to standing with civil society and pro-democracy partners on the ground. He will ensure the US is leading the global coalition to defeat ISIS and use what leverage we have in the region to help shape a political settlement to give more Syrians a voice. Biden would press all actors to pursue political solutions, protect vulnerable Syrians, facilitate the work of non-governmental organization, and help mobilize other countries to support Syria’s reconstruction."
However, to court war-weary voters Biden said that he, too, wanted to exit endless wars. He should do so, demonstrating that at least some American policymakers are capable of learning from past mistakes. Indeed, he could offer some common sense foreign policy principles as part of a new Biden Doctrine. For instance, the US should stay out of other people’s civil wars. Especially when most of the combatants are bad. America shouldn’t get involved when other nations have more at stake and the ability to act. The US should stay out of fights with serious powers that have more at stake. Waging war in the name of preventing or limiting instability is a fool’s errand. Washington shouldn’t intervene in countries and regions of little and declining importance. Policymakers shouldn’t sacrifice the local population for arbitrary ideological or political ends. Finally, a president nevertheless hoping to do any of these should seek congressional approval.
The Biden administration should consider a radically different course in Syria – follow the path suggested by the United Arab Emirates, and offer renewal of diplomatic ties, end of economic sanctions, and access to the international financial markets in exchange for achievable human rights improvements and political reforms. Attempting permanent isolation of the Assad regime mostly punishes his victims. Assad will rule over Syria and live well whether his country recovers or not. But his people desperately need peace and reconstruction.
There no longer is any serious argument for keeping American military personnel in Syria. Even in the best of times, Syria was no geopolitical trophy. Today it is wreck that will require years to recover a shadow of its former strength. Cook concluded that "The clear-cut case for inaction in Syria outweighs the clear-cut case for action."
The president should announce that he plans to avoid, not join, other nations’ civil wars. Rather than revisit how his predecessors could have intervened more intensively in Syria, he should focus on protecting Americans from similar disasters in the future.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.