U.S. Mission in Syria Poses Risk Without Rewards
It is difficult to overstate how chaotic, violent, and intractable the situation in Syria has become. Regional powers such as the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, and Turkey—along with hundreds of rebel groups—employ armed forces or violent militia in search of competing objectives. But not every intractable situation demands the blood of our servicemembers and treasure of our taxpayers be spent trying to solve it.
In this cesspool of violence—before creeping into full-blown occupation and nation-building, a proven no-win situation for the U.S.—Washington should immediately redeploy U.S. Forces to higher priority missions actually related to our core interests.
American military personnel should never be sent into harm’s way unless the potential sacrifice of their lives is absolutely necessary and critical to the security of the United States. Moreover, any time they are deployed, they should have a clear, defined mission that can reasonably be attained with the resources at their disposal. The current U.S. mission in Syria fails on both counts.
In fact, statements in the past few weeks by various senior Department of Defense leaders indicate confusion as to why the troops are still in Syria and what they are intended to accomplish. The Trump Administration ostensibly increased America’s military presence to facilitate the liberation of ISIS-held territory, most pointedly Raqqa.
In March 2017, U.S. military spokesman Col. John L. Dorrian told reporters the military mission was to provide “logistical and fire support” to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “to enable a successful assault on Raqqa.” The SDF accomplished that mission October 2017. U.S. troops, however, did not redeploy. Instead, Defense officials have offered new and shifting rationale for the troops’ mission.
Earlier this month, from a combat outpost in Manbij, U.S. Special Forces Commander Maj. Gen. James Jarrard said, “The military role is clearly defined, and right now that’s to support the SDF.” The overall commander of the U.S. mission in Syria Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk, said troops are there “to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS is maintained in this area."
DoD spokesman Eric Pahon proffered yet another reason, saying the U.S. military presence allows “the citizens of Manbij to continue to make progress in restoring the city to its pre-conflict way of life.”
None of these statements support U.S. national security objectives, nor are they militarily attainable.
Perpetually “supporting” a militia that is a party to a civil war in a foreign country does not contribute to U.S. security objectives. With the loss of Raqqa, ISIS no longer holds territory in Syria.
Syria is today a veritable poison brew of scores of different armed groups, conflicting interests, and shifting alliances. The civil war there shows no signs of ending anytime soon. This political conflict will never be won with military force. It is a highly complex problem about the country’s governance and will require the people who have to live with the results discovering sophisticated, sustainable political solutions to end hostilities. Consider the toxic military mess currently at play in Syria.
First, the Syrian regime is battling hundreds of rebel groups, many of which are as opposed to each other as they are to the Assad regime. One of the largest is the al-Qaeda-leaning Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is reported to have as many as 10,000 fighters—Assad’s demise and their ascension would be antithetical to our interests. The regime has also invited allies Russia and Iran onto their territory. All of these are opposed to Washington’s presence in Syria, but that does not justify further U.S. involvement— we are a superpower, and should not behave as a fearful, reactionary state, constantly responding to shrinking and small Russia and Iran.
Second, the U.S. military is in a partnership of convenience with the SDF. America’s NATO ally, Turkey, considers the SDF to be allied with Kurdish terror groups (so designated by the U.S.) and openly defies the U.S. and kills SDF personnel; Ankara has warned that U.S. troops could be killed as Turkish troops continue their operations within Syria. Turkey sees an existential threat on its border, which takes priority over any U.S. interests in the region, which Erdogan knows full well.
Third, there is an ever-present risk that U.S. troops could come under attack from rebel groups opposed to the SDF, from Turkish troops, from Syrian regime forces, from Iranian troops, or from Russian mercenaries (as happened a week ago) or military personnel. Further, a broader war could break out if U.S. troops inadvertently killed troops from Syria, Russia, or Iran—or it could rupture NATO if American and Turkish troops battle each other. None of this helps America deal with far more important regions, like our backyard in Asia and Europe.
It strains credulity even to suggest there is a potential benefit to the United States to keep military forces on the ground in Syria. The continued presence of American service members on Syrian soil can only drain precious resources to at an unacceptable and unjustified risk to U.S. personnel and national interests. When no good options exist, Washington must have the wisdom and courage to make the best strategic choice for our nation—that means immediate military redeployment for any soldier in Syria not directly countering threats to America.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.