Syria Could Be Washington’s Next Big Foreign Policy Failure

How did the United States get into this mess?

February 16, 2018 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on February 14, 2018

President Donald Trump criticized candidate Hillary Clinton for her interventionist tendencies. Now he plans to maintain U.S. forces amid battling Kurds, Turks, Russians, Iranians and contending Syrian factions. Washington’s policy is frankly mad. Having attained its primary objective, defeating the Islamic State, or ISIS, the Trump administration should wrap up American operations in Syria.

As a superpower the United States has interests all over, but few of them are important, let alone vital. Syria is peripheral to America economically and militarily. It is a humanitarian tragedy, but the United States has remained aloof from worse conflicts. Although the Assad government is odious, the country’s civil war featured numerous murderous, undemocratic, radical and otherwise undesirable factions.

President Barack Obama resisted the temptation to intervene directly in the Syrian imbroglio. In contrast, President Trump launched airstrikes against the Assad government. He quadrupled the number of U.S. troops to about two thousand. Moreover, reported Reuters, “U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian‐​backed forces, leading to the shoot‐​down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia.” Now the president is going all in, planning an extended occupation and expansive nation‐​building program, and risking conflict with multiple antagonists.

Some analysts have even less realistic ambitions. Declared the Washington Post: “The United States cannot prevent a resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, prevent Iran from building bases across Syria, or end a civil war that has sent millions of refugees toward Europe without maintaining control over forces and territory inside the country, just as Russia and Iran do. Only by being a factor on the ground will Washington be taken seriously as it seeks the implementation of a UN peace plan for Syria — a road map calling for nationwide democratic elections — that Russia and the regime of Bashar al‐​Assad are trying to bury.”

Seriously? Officials in Washington, with a few troops on the ground, are going to deter terrorist organizations, constrain Iran, end sectarian fighting, cow Moscow, and create a democratic Syria? Washington spent decades wrecking the region through misguided meddling and now is going to fix the mess in a few months or couple years? It is a delusion, a fantasy.

With the defeat of the Islamic State, Syria’s civil war has changed form. The Syrian government, with Iranian and Russian support, is targeting the few remaining Sunni Arab insurgents while Turkey has turned several Sunni rebel groups into anti‐​Kurdish proxies. Russia has deployed S-400 antiaircraft missiles, giving it leverage against Turkey and the United States.

Washington plans a permanent military presence in northern Syria. The administration is backing an independent Kurdish military, a policy guaranteed to run afoul of Turkey, Syria and Iran. Just as Iraqi Kurds used the chaos of war to expand their control, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) expanded Kurdish influence in Syria and now controls roughly a quarter of the country, called the Democratic Federation of Rojava. The United States worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), to defeat the Islamic State.

After the defeat of ISIS Washington promised to end weapons transfers to Kurdish forces. But then the Trump administration announced plans for a new Kurdish border force to prevent an ISIS revival. Ankara responded with “Operation Olive Branch” against Afrin, just over the Syrian border, and threatened to march east on Manbij, which contains American troops. Washington’s friends, including non‐​Kurdish troops, have begun breaking away to aid their compatriots — using U.S.-supplied weapons.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and many of his backers view America as an adversary, determined to do Turkey ill. Indeed, in few nations is popular antagonism toward Washington greater. Erdogan has benefited politically from escalating Turkey’s war against Kurdish separatists at home and abroad.

How did the United States get into this mess?

With the Arab Spring the United States called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow. His regime was odious, but threatened no one outside his borders, certainly not the United States. Washington’s designation of Damascus as a state sponsor of terrorism was political, reflecting Syria’s support for Arab organizations hostile to Israel. The United States made half‐​hearted efforts to support groups seeking to oust Assad. Alas, genuine moderates were few and ineffective, so Washington ended up backing more radical groups. Much of America’s aid ultimately ended up in the hands of jihadists who viewed the United States no more favorably than the Assad government.

While seeking to oust Assad, Washington improbably sought to simultaneously defeat ISIS, back so‐​called moderates, avoid radicals, support PYD, use YPG, cooperate with Turkey, oppose Iran, and sidestep Russians. As always, Washington’s ambitions greatly exceeded its ability.

Now the administration assures us that it has an even better idea, an extended occupation by combat troops amid multiple contending armed forces, highlighted by forcing Assad from office, fixing war‐​ravaged areas, building up Kurdish forces, satisfying the Turkish government, banishing Tehran’s influence, and avoiding confrontation with Russia. There is no risk of overreach or mission creep. And certainly no need for Congress to vote on the issue.

Secretary Tillerson recently set forth the administration’s Syria policy. His talk ignored the consistent failure of American Mideast policy, starting with Syria. The United States also has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003 — at the cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars — and neither country is remotely peaceful or stable. Washington helped wreck Libya, spreading chaos throughout the region. The U.S.-backed equally destructive intervention by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Now, the Trump administration says it has the answer.

“It is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria” and “crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria,” said Tillerson. He added: “Syria remains a source of severe strategic threats and a major challenge for our diplomacy.”

Threat to what? America was secure when Syria was united, allied with Moscow, and periodically at war with Israel. The United States was secure when the Assad regime lost control over much of the country and radical Islamists dominated the opposition. America was secure when the Islamic State created its infamous “caliphate” stretching over much or Iraq and Syria. America is secure with ISIS defeated, Assad ascendant, and chunks of the country held by a confusing mix of competing forces allied with varying nations. America’s interest in Syria is transcended by that of virtually every nation in the region, especially Iran, Turkey and Russia.

Tillerson cited the Islamic State, contending that America’s presence “is just more training and trying to block ISIS from their escape routes.” Former NATO commander James Stavridis similarly argued that “the message is our military presence is still about defeating ISIS and ensuring that it’s an enduring defeat.”

However, an American occupation of northern Syria isn’t necessary to stop ISIS from regrouping. The Islamic State always was the responsibility of the Middle Eastern states, all of which it considered to be its enemies. American involvement encouraged the Assad government to focus on other insurgents, enabled Ankara to tolerate the activities of ISIS, and allowed the Sunni Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, to shift their resources elsewhere, especially to intervening in Yemen’s civil war.

The Islamic State has lost 98 percent of the territory it once held. It beggars belief that Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria cannot together prevent an Islamic State revival. While early in the conflict Damascus targeted other insurgents, for reasons both of geography, particularly the location of the country’s most heavily populated areas, and Washington’s involvement, which made U.S.-backed forces more dangerous. Today the Assad government wants to reestablish control over any lands controlled by the Islamic State.

Ironically, ISIS resulted from prior U.S. military intervention. Secretary Tillerson’s appeal to the alleged mistake of withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 misrepresents history. It was the Bush administration’s invasion which created Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS. It was the Bush administration’s inability to win approval of a status‐​of‐​forces agreement that forced America’s withdrawal. And it was the Bush administration which put in place a Shia‐​nationalist government which alienated Sunnis, whose support was necessary for the Islamic State to take over much of the country.

Equally false is Tillerson’s claim that Washington is working with Ankara and maintaining friendly ties. Overall, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has never been worse, at least in recent history: Ankara is unashamedly moving toward dictatorship and enhancing ties with Russia, against which NATO is directed.

Moreover, President Erdogan always was more interested in ousting the Assad government and containing Kurdish forces than in destroying the Islamic State. Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations observed: “Over the course of the conflict in Syria, the Turkish government turned a blind eye to jihadists, enabled Al Qaeda affiliates, and was (at best) ambivalent about fighting the Islamic State.”

The Erdogan government long complained about U.S. reliance on Kurdish fighters and now has intervened militarily to prevent consolidation of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish state. Forget fine distinctions drawn by the United States between forces which it supports and those being attacked by Turkey. Ankara sees only “terrorists.”

Tillerson also made the unexceptional observation that Assad’s regime violates human rights. But then, so do many U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain and Egypt. Nor has the administration indicated how a continuing presence in north Syria will help oust Assad, which continues to enjoy the backing of Iran and Russia.

Reviving support for much‐​diminished “moderate” insurgents would be hopeless. Russia likely would respond as it did before, accelerating its support for Damascus. The administration’s strategy is simply wishful thinking: “Because of its influence on the Syrian regime, Russia must join the international community and support this way forward [meaning Assad’s departure] to end the conflict in Syria.” Tillerson probably believes in the Tooth Fairy and Great Pumpkin as well.

Tillerson complained that “for many years, Syria under Bashar al‐​Assad has been a client state of Iran.” But as he recognized, the two governments were allied before the start of the civil war. Tillerson warned that to disengage “would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria” and spoke of “reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence from Syria.” How would a small U.S. presence do that? Iran is not only closer geographically, but has much greater interest in Syria and is working with the Damascus government. Tillerson assured Americans that “we’re not there to engage with Iran,” but then what will America do?

Anyway, why does this justify U.S. military involvement? Tillerson cited “continued strategic threats to the U.S.” from Tehran. But Iran will not attack America. The Jewish Institute for National Security of America recently worried that Iran’s gains “threaten to entrench Tehran as the arbiter of postwar Syria and consolidate its control of a ‘land bridge’ connecting Iran directly to Lebanon and Hezbollah.” However, Iran is weak economically, isolated internationally, divided internally and surrounded by enemies. Tehran’s “empire” is more drain than gain: embattled Yemen, divided Iraq, sectarian Lebanon and ravaged Syria. Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others are fully capable of containing Iran without an American military presence. Military outlays by Saudi Arabia alone vastly outrange those of Tehran.

The administration’s fixation with Iran is encouraging Syrian factions to again play the U.S. Former YPG spokesman Newaf Xelil said “We think that it is surely possible that the Americans will find real reasons to deepen their relationship with the Kurds in a strategic sense,” pointing to Washington’s desire to roll back Iranian influence. The Free Syrian Army’s Mustafa Sejari argued that the president should “turn words into action” and do more to aid “moderate forces.” Yet defending a Kurdish statelet would be a high price to pay for doing little to limit Iran.

Tillerson also contended that “we must persist in Syria to thwart Al Qaeda, which still has a substantial presence and base of operations in northwest Syria.” But in its foolish determination to oust the Assad government, the Obama administration aided Al Qaeda affiliated groups. Moreover, the same administration supported Riyadh’s attack on the Houthi‐​backed Yemeni government, limiting its operations against the local Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps the group’s most threatening off‐​shoot.

Nor would staying in Syria hamper terrorist operations. To the contrary, American military intervention has created enemies and spawned terrorists around the globe. Anyway, Al Qaeda and other groups can operate almost anywhere, including in the territory of an ally, such as Pakistan. Staying around Syria would change nothing.

Despite Tillerson’s contrary assurances, the administration is embarking upon another interminable nation‐​building project. Tillerson said “consistent with our values, America has the opportunity to help a people which has suffered greatly. We must give Syrians a chance to return home and rebuild their lives.” But this does not require an American military presence.

Even though Washington doesn’t control the entire nation, the secretary’s ambition is expansive: “Continued U.S. presence to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their liberated areas.” He talked about “stabilization initiatives,” which “consist of essential measures such as clearing unexploded land mines left behind by ISIS, allowing hospitals to reopen, restoring water and electricity services, and getting boys and girls back in school.”

Other officials also forecast a lengthy U.S. presence. Said Col. Ryan Dillon, a military spokesman in Baghdad, “We’re going to be [in Syria] until the political process gains traction” — which could be never. The State Department’s Stanley Brown observed: “Right now the key foreign‐​policy interest is stabilizing these areas and creating a sense of hope in these communities.” Creating a sense of hope? How long will that take?

However, the fullest measure of the administration’s folly is evident from the potential U.S.-Turkish clash over the Kurds. The situation is complicated, but Turkey’s worries are not baseless. The PYD and YPG are nominally independent from the PKK and the U.S. government insists that it does not back Kurds battling Turkey. However, in Ankara’s view these Kurdish groups are but an “offshoot” of the PKK. And the connections are strong. Newaf Xelil said that “They are not different parts at all, and they cannot be divided in any way, not politically, not economically, not militarily.” Indeed, he added, “For us, it is all Kurdistan and we are now defending Afrin with all we have,” including forces once working with America.

In any case, Washington long showed little concern for the Erdogan government’s perspective. But the administration miscalculated when it announced plans to create, train, and arm what the Pentagon called the Border Security Force to patrol Syria’s border with Turkey. Although Washington backtracked in response to Ankara’s invasion, its reassurances fell short. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that “We would need to restore trust before we can even discuss a serious issue.” Turkey’s President Erdogan bluntly warned the United States: “don’t get in between us and terrorist organizations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences.” He added: “Don’t force us to bury in the ground those who are with the terrorist.” Indeed, insisted Erdogan, “Until the last terrorist is neutralized, this operation will continue.”

An unnamed administration official told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius: “Threats to our forces are not something we can accept.” Another one anonymously told the Wall Street Journal: “We’ve been pretty clear that there will be consequences if they move toward Manbij.” But no one seriously imagines the United States going to war with Turkey.

Various proposals have been offered to avoid a confrontation. The United States should broker talks between Kurds and the Turks as well as other insurgents. Washington should promise the Turks not to support independence or expansion for Syrian Kurds or cooperation with the PKK and promise Kurds that Ankara will not intervene militarily into Syria. This requires “quietly persuading” the Turks, wrote Stavridis. Alas, the United States is in no position to give such guarantees. Doing so would permanently entangle the United States in a conflict not its own.

In fact, Washington will abandon the Kurds. When Iraqi Kurdistan went ahead with an independence referendum against Washington’s advice last September, the Trump administration left the territory to its fate: blockade by Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and a military assault by Baghdad. Washington quickly disclaimed any attempt to halt the Turkish advance in Afrin. Nothing more should be expected if Ankara expands its operations to toward Manbij.

Washington has attempted to juggle inconsistent policies throughout the Syrian civil war. Attempting to stay after the Islamic State’s defeat would be even more foolish. Before taking office, President Trump declared, “What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria.” He even warned: “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”

The best strategy to avoid that possibility is for America to disengage. “What we don’t want to do is leave a mess,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command. That is inevitable, however. The better objective is to avoid being part of the mess that others make. Washington should treat Syria as the human tragedy that it is, not the security priority that it is not. Bring American forces home.

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