Lost amid the understandable moral and strategic outrage over President Trump’s disastrous and incompetent decision-making on Syria is one politically inconvenient fact: Trump’s assessment of the situation there is not entirely wrong.
U.S. policy in Syria has been unclear, confused and unrealistic for nearly a decade—a never-ending mission impossible without realistic goals or the means to achieve them. Yes, people are rightly enraged at Trump’s willful abandonment of the Kurds and his disregard for U.S. credibility and interests. But this indignation should not obscure the fact: U.S. policy in Syria was headed for trouble. Chaotic and destructive as they are, Trump’s actions have served to lay bare some uncomfortable truths and realities about U.S. policy toward Syria. Yes, Trump has played the role of both arsonist and fireman. He can sanction Turkey and send Vice President Pence on any number of cease-fire missions. But there’s no going back. A new approach, and not a quixotic American vision of how we would like Syria to be, is now required.
Not since Barack Obama’s red line on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons turned pink, have we seen as severe a reaction to a foreign policy move. But when the outrage over the initial Syria decision settles, as it must, clear-eyed decisions must be made about the U.S. role in Syria and the Middle East more broadly. And that means facing facts. Here are five of them that ought to inform any reasonable debate going forward.
The U.S.-Kurdish relationship was never going to last.
Trump’s decision to abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish-led militia of some 70,000 fighters, of which at least 40 percent are Syrian Arabs and other minorities, was as unforgivable as it was predictable.
Trump was never comfortable with a long-term investment in the SDF and reportedly told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as early as 2017 he wasn’t happy about hanging around Syria protecting Kurds. Thus, it should have come as no surprise that, after the SDF played a critical role in dismantling the ISIS caliphate, Trump would be looking for an exit from what he regarded (not without some justification) as the Syrian quagmire. Indeed, after a December 2018 phone call with Erdogan, Trump was all but ready not just to redeploy U.S. forces from the Turkish-Syrian border, but to withdraw them entirely. Pentagon and State Department planners should have realized that sooner or later Trump would return to the issue of withdrawal of U.S. support for the Kurds and were either unwilling or unable to prepare for this eventuality.
The U.S. commitment to the Kurds was highly cost-effective and productive in fighting ISIS as part of a “by, with and through” approach to harnessing Kurdish strength on the ground. But even without America’s long history of making promises to the Kurds it could not keep, it should have been clear that after the physical dismantling of the ISIS Caliphate, the U.S. relationship with the SDF would become increasingly fraught. Indeed, Washington eventually would have been faced with the choice of supporting either a Kurdish/Arab militia tied however loosely to the PKK, a designated terror group perceived by Turkey as an existential threat, or Turkey, a NATO member.
The SDF did not sacrifice its fighters out of love for America; rather, it hoped to harness U.S. power to help protect Kurdish territory and guarantee autonomy in a future Syria. Washington and the Kurds formed a marriage of convenience to defeat ISIS, but over the longer term there would have been a reckoning over divergent goals. The territory the SDF controlled was roughly the size of West Virginia and it is sandwiched between a deeply suspicious Turkey and an Assad regime equally resolved to bring all of Syria under its control. Consequently, survival of the SDF would have depended on Washington’s willingness to help protect the Kurds from Turkey and likely a long-term U.S. presence and security guarantees as well as support for Syria’s stabilization and reconstruction. Perhaps a future U.S. administration would have accepted these responsibilities in order to contain ISIS and gain leverage over the Assad regime. But the Trump administration was not about to get drawn into the Syrian vortex. And it is an open question whether the administration that follows Trump (be it in 2020 or 2024), Congress and the American public would be prepared to foot the bill of not just fighting jihadists but getting drawn into what would have been a nation-building exercise as well.
Russia is the key power broker in Syria.
Since Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria, the foreign policy establishment—the “blob”—has spilled a lot more ink complaining that his move benefits Russia than thinking about its actual effect on U.S. interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did what the Obama and Trump administrations would not—intervene in the Syrian civil war. Instead of fighting that war by proxy, Putin and his generals stepped in with air power, boots on the ground, and unexpected skill, determination—and yes, unspeakable brutality—and changed the course of the civil war. Putin saved Assad and by doing so reemerged as a major power broker in the Middle East. Putin won the Syrian civil war, and he deserves its spoils.
And what spoils they are—a war-torn society, a ruined economy, bombed-out cities, and millions of refugees. If Putin wants to take on the burden of rebuilding Syria, fixing what his air force destroyed, brokering peace among Syria’s many factions, and propping up Assad—in addition to balancing the interests of Russia’s regional partners Turkey, Iran and Israel—then we should let him. If there’s a downside to letting Russia manage the Syrian mess, it has more to do with U.S. pride and the understandable animus toward Putin that exists in Washington these days. But the idea that Putin’s Syria gambit will allow him to take over the Middle East is just silly. Frankly, he can’t do much worse than three U.S. presidents have done since the Iraq invasion and few, if any core U.S. interests—halting nuclear proliferation, preserving Israel’s security, preventing terrorist attacks against the homeland and maintaining the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf—are likely to suffer.
Some will argue that giving Russia free rein in the region is an unacceptable risk. But at this point the United States is not giving anything to Russia, Moscow is taking what it wants and the United States is not in a position to stop it unless it is prepared to escalate the confrontation with Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Assad regime, which even the most committed advocates of a more vigorous U.S. posture in Syria don’t want. Why not try harness Russian power and diplomatic skills to achieve something that will fall short of our aspirations for Syria, but will be better than the nightmare it has been through?
Assad is here to stay.
America’s abhorrence at dealing with Syrian President Bashar Assad is understandable. He is a mass murderer and has committed war crimes, including using chemical weapons on his own people. But moral outrage, however justified and emotionally satisfying, is not a substitute for policy. It has been apparent for some time, except for those in denial, that Assad isn’t going anywhere—Russia and Iran have assured that. His regime now controls over 60 percent of Syrian territory. He is irrevocably committed to seizing the rest and now stands to control, if he can manage, 75 percent of Syria’s oil resources and a good deal of fertile agricultural land.
Assad and his allies constitute the most powerful array of forces on the ground in Syria. And even though the Syrian military is weak and stretched thin, it will likely extend regime control over additional territory committing war crimes and killing civilians in the process. Whether Assad will be able to establish control over the entire country is not the point: He controls the capital, Syria’s major cities, airports and seaports. He’s likely to remain something of an international pariah with few willing to fund the billions required to reconstruct the country. Washington doesn’t have to deal with Assad or his cronies. But we should not try to discourage—as we seem to have been willing to do with the SDF—other Syrian groups from doing so. Whether the Russians can find a way to broker a deal between Assad and Turkey to stabilize northeastern Syria, let alone to broker some kind of overall political settlement, remains highly doubtful.
There won’t be a second caliphate.
Rather than chase unrealistic ambitions, the U.S. should remain focused on what its core interest in Syria has been since 2011: countering the threat from ISIS. That will be harder now with the end of the U.S. partnership with the SDF but it is certainly not impossible. Coping effectively with this challenge requires accepting several propositions.
First, as long as Syria remains a broken country riven by sectarian hatred and a repressive Alawite regime, ISIS cannot be destroyed or even defeated because the conditions that created ISIS are not going to go away. But the threat it poses can be contained. Second, ISIS is not solely an American problem; it poses a more serious danger to most of our friends and allies in the region and beyond. As Trump has argued, these countries should pull their own weight in dealing with this common threat. Third, Washington should assume that at some point Assad and his allies will act in their own self-interest—and they all want to prevent a resurgence of ISIS even though their other agendas may well divert and distract them from a laser focus on combating the jihadis. Finally, the ability of ISIS and its affiliates to wreak further havoc in Syria and Iraq and carry out terror attacks in the region and in Europe is unquestionable. Indeed, the ISIS insurgency was gaining ground even before Trump’s retreat from Syria. ISIS fighters could take over some towns and villages and put pressure on others, but another caliphate is probably not in the cards if the U.S. and the other anti-ISIS actors in Syria take military action against it. More importantly, attacks by ISIS, while horrific for the people of Syria, should not be conflated with a heightened threat to the American homeland, which is exactly what Joe Biden did in the Democratic debate earlier this week with his semihysterical assertion that ISIS “is going to come here!”
Since 9/11, America has spent $2.8 trillion on homeland security. If at this point America is a sitting duck for ISIS, a ton of taxpayer money has been wasted. It has been 18 years since this country suffered a terrorist attack that was planned and executed by foreign jihadists. At one time there were thousands of jihadists rampaging around Iraq and Syria and there are jihadists all over the Middle East, Africa, south Asia, and Southeast Asia. If the U.S. has not been attacked in almost two decades, why would we be more vulnerable by the scattered remnants of ISIS in Syria? Attacks on the U.S. homeland may well continue to be committed by radicalized U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents inspired by jihadi propaganda and narratives. But that problem won’t be solved by maintaining American troops in Syria.
Moreover, the U.S. has options to keep ISIS down. The military has substantial combat aircraft, drones, intelligence platforms and logistics support around Syria, and would face no serious air defenses from ISIS, and it is doubtful that the Russians would interfere to defend ISIS fighters from American attacks. Intense and sustained attacks on ISIS positions are feasible, although it would likely require coordination with the Syrians and their allies. The U.S.’ Arab friends are unlikely to contribute ground forces to an anti-ISIS campaign in Syria, but they should allow the U.S. to stage military operations from their territory and pay for some of those costs. America’s NATO allies should also put some military skin in the game. After all, they’re the ones who have suffered the most from the chaos in Syria. The British and the French have some deployable combat brigades and air power to kill ISIS foot-soldiers in Syria. Finally, the U.N., U.S., the EU and Arab states with deep pockets should substantially increase funding to meet humanitarian needs in Syria.
Syria is not a vital U.S. interest.
In almost a decade, Washington has not found a sustainable or effective policy in Syria. And part of the reason is that we rightly don’t consider Syria a vital national interest. Two administrations have now made that fact clear by the choices they have made to minimize if not end the U.S. role there, with the exception of pursuing counterterrorism against ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates. Neither Congress nor the American public has the appetite to commit American blood and treasure in Syria. Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime are prepared to make these sacrifices and Syria is a much higher priority for them than it is for the United States. Trump has made the Syrian story much more tragic by deciding, in the most inept way possible, to cut and run. It’s unlikely, however, that U.S. sanctions against Turkey—not to mention a crude and patronizing letter by Trump to Erdogan—can reverse the Turkish leader’s resolve to defend what he believes to be his vital political and security interests in Syria.
The notion that Syria is a zero-sum game where any setback for the U.S. is an automatic gain for our adversaries invites both bad analysis and bad policy. Deeper Russian involvement in the middle of the Turkish/Kurdish/Syrian regime imbroglio—at best a situation that can be managed but not resolved—will not harm core U.S. interests: securing the free flow of oil; countering nuclear proliferation; and preventing an attack on the homeland. Israel has managed to constrain Iran’s more expansionist designs in Syria, and Russian and Iranian goals do not always coincide.
Syria is a complicated place that offers no one an unqualified win. Instead, it is a land where the majority of Syrians pay a terrible price at the hands of external powers and a minority brutal government determined to survive at any price. It will remain a money pit where plans for peace, good governance and stability go to die. And right now, there’s little Washington is willing or able to do about it.