Ground War in Syria Would Be a Huge Mistake
As his spitballing press conference reminded us ad nauseam, President Trump is not ready to let the bygones of the election be bygones—and where U.S. policy toward Syria is concerned, that might not be such a bad thing.
Perhaps the president’s most cogent attack on Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state during their race was his critique of her signature military intervention in Libya. “Look at what she did in Libya with [late leader Moammar] Gadhafi,” he argued during the second presidential debate. “Gadhafi is out. It's a mess. And, by the way, ISIS has a good chunk of their oil. I am sure you probably have heard that. It was a disaster.”
Trump mentioned Libya in service to remarks about his plans for Syria, arguing that the United States must learn from the Clinton-orchestrated missteps with Gadhafi and avoid their repetition with Bashar al-Assad. Arming too-unknown rebels with questionable loyalties often backfires, Trump rightly noted, and the Syrian civil war offers no obvious ally for the United States.
When asked to choose between supporting the Assad regime—responsible, as Trump put it, for “a disaster, humanitarian-wise” but opposed to the brutal Islamic State—or backing rebels willing to work with al Qaeda (the terrorist organization responsible for 9/11) in pursuit of regime change—the wise choice is to avoid U.S. entanglement altogether.
Trump seemed to understand the prudence of restraint in Syria during the election contest he now refuses to let go. But he has forgotten that wisdom if his Defense Department is seriously considering ground war in Syria, an escalation that exceeds what Clinton herself—plus the Washington foreign policy establishment more broadly—typically proposed.
Trump has already taken a step toward escalation with his enthusiasm for Clinton’s signature safe zone plan for Syria, an interventionist move that risks fostering further chaos more than it promises real humanitarian gains, not to mention conflict with nuclear superpower Russia and strained relations with Turkey. Though perhaps less reckless than full-scale ground war, putting U.S. boots on the ground for safe zones is not the easy, humanitarian project, it is often made out to be. Given the circumstances in Syria, a single safe zone for Aleppo could easily require 25,000 American soldiers and more than $30 billion for just one year of operation.
Of course, safe zones are just the beginning where ground operations are concerned. An anonymous Pentagon official told Reuters the conventional ground war idea for Syria is currently “way, way speculative,” but Trump expects a strategy for defeating ISIS to arrive on his desk within a week. With a timeline like that, what is now just a “point of discussion” at the DoD could all too easily become a real agenda in a hasty administration that has yet to delineate its foreign policy course.
So before that die is cast, Trump must remember what he once seemed to know: There is no victory for America in Syria. The president cannot and will not achieve the “winning” he adores by entangling the United States in yet another large-scale ground war in the Middle East. We cannot engineer stability in Aleppo any more than we could do it in Baghdad, Kabul, or Benghazi; Syrians themselves must engineer stability.
The prospects for U.S. stabilization efforts are poor. Indeed, if U.S. intervention in Syria ever reaches a conclusion, America faces one of three bad outcomes: Either we crush Assad and enable ISIS and other Islamic extremist militants, or we crush ISIS and other extremists and enable Assad, or we crush both and find ourselves stuck with a nation-building project of gargantuan proportions. Are any of these options worth the risk to American lives and the cost to American livelihoods a ground war in Syria would necessarily entail?
More likely, however, no such definite conclusion would be forthcoming. Instead, the ground war in Syria will simply stretch on indefinitely, just as the ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan has. It will last long past Trump’s election re-litigation and, if the pattern of his two most recent predecessors and their military misadventures continues, past his entire presidency. It will leech U.S. blood and treasure for years to come while offering no clear gains for American security and operating outside constitutional boundaries. (And that is the optimistic perspective in which our maneuvers in Syria do not provoke far more dangerous conflict with Russia and/or Iran.)
With a shift into conventional ground war in Syria, the Trump administration would embrace the very recalcitrant, counterproductive foreign policy mindset the president promised to repudiate. This idea is a foolhardy reiteration of the most egregious failures of the last decade and a half, and its likely results are as predictable as they are disastrous.