President Trump’s Shift in Syria
Addressing an infrastructure event in Ohio on March 29, President Donald Trump declared that the United States would be departing Syria sooner rather than later.
“We are going to have 100 percent of the [Islamic State] caliphate... But we are going to be coming out of there real soon,” Trump told a roomful of his supporters. “We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.” And In case one thought such a declaration was simply a throwaway line at a public event, Trump put that to rest at the White House days later: “I want to get out, I want to bring the troops back home, I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
Five months after the president made those remarks, it appears as if the administration’s Syria policy has shifted in the opposite direction. The same establishment forces within the administration who have publicly admitted to restraining the president’s policy instincts may now very well be involved in boxing the United States into one more long-term, strategically amoral military and economic commitment in the Middle East.
The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. troops would remain in Eastern Syria indefinitely, both to ensure Iranian personnel and Iranian-sponsored militias leave the country and to assist in the formation of a “non-threatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.”
Much of the foreign policy community in Washington will be thrilled at the change intact, no doubt viewing the new policy as a way to salvage whatever influence and leverage the U.S. has in a war that has turned Syria from a proud country to a pile of debris. But this would be a deeply mistaken assessment that inflates what the U.S. actually has the power to achieve. Even more importantly, the administration’s new policy is the very definition of “mission-creep.” Rather than packing up and going home after counter-ISIS operations are complete, the White House is searching for new missions to justify an enduring U.S. military presence in the middle of the Syrian desert.
The U.S. objective in Syria cannot be the removal of all Iranian military and intelligence personnel from Syria—that would require the Pentagon to sit on the same patch of sandy Syrian terrain forever. U.S. troops would be stationed in the middle of the Syrian desert in pursuit of a goal that is impossible to fulfill and one that is a glaring distraction from the objective that truly matters to U.S. national security: defending the homeland from transnational terrorist attacks. A presence outlined above would yield little benefit for America, cost taxpayers and servicemembers dearly, and reveal just how little the country’s foreign policy establishment has learned over the previous seventeen years.
The Iran-Syria relationship is a strategic one born out of mutual interest and personal ties. The Assad regime has provided Tehran with a principle state ally in an Arab world that largely views Iranian machinations in the region as a cancer. For Tehran, Syria under Assad’s reign is an old ally in the Middle East. For the United States, Syria is an economic basket case and a minor player in a region that sucked up an inordinate amount of American blood, treasure, and attention.
The political and military support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including the organization and training of Shia militia units, financial assistance to the Syrian government (to the time of $30 billion since Syria’s war began), and critical enabling and command support in the field, have made it difficult to separate Iran from Syria’s state institutions. The Iranians have invested an enormous amount of manpower and capital into saving their proxy, and to think Tehran would pack up just because the U.S. has demanded it is delusional. In fact, Iran signed a defense agreement with Damascus just last month, an accord further solidifying a relationship between Iran and Syria that has persisted for decades.
We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. And the reality is that while Iran is certainly a problem for the region’s powers, Tehran is a nuisance to U.S. grand strategy relating to near-peer competitors like China and Russia—two nations the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy rightly regard as geopolitical and economic competitors. Allocating U.S. military power in the Middle East to combat an Iranian government the region has the collective power to contain on its own would be a reactionary decision at a time when U.S. foreign policy could use much more pragmatism and self-restraint.
In addition, such an operation would be a hard sell for the American people, a population that is physically, psychologically, and financially exhausted after spending upwards of $5.6 trillion on wars, military aid, security training programs, nation-building exercises, and intelligence operations over the last 17 years. The American people’s patience for open-ended commitments to missions of tertiary importance is wearing thin. An unending U.S. military in Eastern Syria would be exactly the kind of operation the American public want to avoid.
In short, an indefinite U.S. military presence in Syria would be an endeavor with zero strategic benefit for America. It would, however, be costly and unnecessary, both regarding the U.S. taxpayer funds expended to maintain and resupply that presence and to the safety of the troops themselves. U.S. soldiers and marines should be used to prevent bad guys from killing Americans—not to referee the region’s civil and proxy conflicts. Continuous U.S. military involvement in Syria would be a costly investment, something President Trump can surely spot from his decades in business.
President Trump had it right the first time.
There is no compelling national security interest for the U.S. to undertake another endless American campaign in the Middle East—one whose objectives are impossible to meet and whose success or failure would have minimal direct impact on America’s security or economic prosperity.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.