The Trump Administration Is Poised to Expand the U.S. War in Syria Without a Public Debate

In early September 2013, Americans rose up in opposition to the suggestion that the United States might undertake a limited military operation to punish Syrian President Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons in the civil war there.

Even though Secretary of State John Kerry gave assurances that the punitive strikes would be “unbelievably small,” and were unlikely to draw the United States deeper into yet another Middle Eastern war, the mere possibility that they might do so was too great a risk for many Americans who had grown weary of inconclusive conflicts that didn’t serve U.S. vital security interests. They bombarded congressional offices with phone calls and emails saying “stay out.” At the time, Newt Gingrich was one of a very few Washington insiders who made a succinct case against intervention on behalf of the wider public: “A) I don’t understand why it’s our problem, B) I doubt very much that we can fix it, and C) the guys who are against Assad strike me as about as sick as Assad is.”

In the face of such opposition, President Obama’s decision to submit the question to Congress effectively shelved the idea.

Hawks were dismayed, though most blamed Barack Obama for taking public attitudes into account. The political class would have preferred that he simply ignore the fact that Americans weren’t clamoring for more war, much as they wanted him to disregard popular sentiment with respect to leaving U.S. troops in Iraq. 

Now, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the United States is embarked on a much wider mission in Syria, with the ultimate object of regime change there. The U.S. military presence will be “conditions-based,” meaning open-ended – and, if at all like Iraq and Afghanistan, effectively indefinite. He concedes that some Americans are opposed, but claims it is vital for the United States to remain engaged.

It isn’t vital. Who rules Syria, and whether they do so poorly or well, does not affect the lives and safety of Americans. Nor is it clear that a U.S. military presence on the ground in Syria serves a humanitarian purpose, and is necessary to bring an end to the civil war. It may, in fact, prolong the conflict, and thus the suffering of the Syrian people.

Who exactly is advising the Trump administration on this strategy? Where do these ideas come from? They bear no resemblance to positions that Donald Trump adopted as candidate. In October 2016, for example, he accused Hillary Clinton of risking World War III with Russia by calling for Assad’s ouster. Back then, Trump was content to leave Assad in power, and focus American attention and firepower on ISIS.

Now, barely 15 months later, Assad has reasserted control in parts of Syria, which means dislodging him will be even harder. ISIS, meanwhile, has been shattered, which makes the rationale for U.S. military action even less compelling. The American people aren’t looking to give the already-overburdened U.S. military more tasks to accomplish, and yet that is precisely what the Trump administration appears to be doing.

Why are they moving the goalposts? An explanation by the Secretary of State before a friendly audience at the Hoover Institution should not suffice. At a minimum, Tillerson’s latest announcement should prompt a wide-ranging debate over U.S. goals in Syria, and throughout the Middle East (to include the shameful Saudi-led war in Yemen). In short, Congress should reassert its oversight role, and demand that the Trump administration explain the reasons behind this major policy shift.

If that occurs, it is reasonable to expect, as in 2013, widespread public skepticism. If anything, Americans might be even more opposed, and incensed by the apparent bait-and-switch. And at least some of the people who voted for Donald Trump believing he would be less inclined than Hillary Clinton to expand existing wars, and start new ones, should be feeling a case of buyer’s remorse. He promised change, but he hasn’t delivered