Commentary

President-Elect Donald Trump: Stay Out of Syria

The U.S. presidential election mercifully has ended. But global conflict continues. And American politicians are still attempting to drag America into another tragic, bloody Middle Eastern conflict.

To do so would be madness. President-Elect Donald Trump appears to recognize that Syria is not America’s responsibility. Unfortunately, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, as well as some of those mentioned for top administration positions, take a more militaristic perspective. Trump should announce that his administration will not get involved in Syria’s civil war in any way.

President Barack Obama spent five years resisting pressure for direct military intervention. But he appointed war supporters John Kerry, Samantha Power, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton to manage his foreign policy. Kerry acknowledged to a group of Syrian refugees in Beirut that he and other officials had advocated use of force but “lost the argument.”

However, rather than clearly set a policy of non-involvement, President Obama attempted intervention-lite. The administration failed in both its major objectives: oust Bashar al-Assad as president and empower “moderate” opponents. However, administration officials still have not given up. Even as the American people were voting on Obama’s successor his appointees were pushing “kinetic actions against the regime,” reported anonymous sources. The president remains at odds with his own appointees.

Republican warrior wannabes claim that Washington could have provided just the right form of aid to just the right groups at just the right time and thereby created a liberal, democratic, united Syria allied with America. Even today Thanassis Cambanis of the Century Foundation argues the U.S. should “use its resources to manage conflicts like Syria’s.” That sounds good, but when was the last time Washington “managed” anything well in the Middle East?

Trump should announce that his administration will not get involved in Syria’s civil war in any way.

Even with a quick military victory Washington got Iraq disastrously wrong, empowering Iran while triggering the very sectarian conflict which spawned the Islamic State. U.S. intervention in Libya left chaos and conflict in its wake. American policymakers demonstrate no facility for global social engineering.

In Syria the Obama administration has pursued incompatible objectives and combatants. Washington remains committed to ousting the Assad regime, which remains the most important barrier to a triumph by the Islamic State. NATO ally Turkey spent the civil war’s early years accommodating so-called Daesh, and now is battling Kurdish fighters, who have been America’s staunchest allies against ISIS.

The U.S. has trained and armed so-called moderate insurgents, who have had only limited combat success, often surrendering, along with their U.S.-supplied equipment, to radical forces. One half billion dollar training program generated barely three score insurgents, most of whom were promptly killed or captured.

Former Obama official Derek Chollet said the administration hoped its aid to insurgents would give Washington “leverage” in dealing with its Sunni “allies.” Yet the latter have manipulated America to serve their interests, pressing Washington to oust the Assad regime while supporting radical insurgent groups opposed by the U.S. After providing symbolic aid in the early days, America’s Gulf allies led by Saudi Arabia largely abandoned the campaign against the Islamic State in favor of a brutal attack on Yemen, dragging the U.S. into a dangerous proxy war with Iran.

Extremist forces have threatened U.S. military personnel embedded with Syrian fighters. Arab and Kurdish insurgents trained and armed by Washington recently battled each other. Shia militias fighting with the Baghdad government against ISIS in Iraq are opposing U.S.-backed Sunni insurgents in Syria. Baghdad and Ankara neared war over Turkey’s intervention in northern Iraq. Any attacks on Assad’s forces threaten Russian military personnel and hardware.

Only a dreamer would imagine the incoming administration could do better to bring order to this bloody imbroglio.

Washington must set priorities. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl argued that Russia “has proved that … a limited use of force could change the political outcome, without large costs.” However, that’s because Moscow has one objective: keep Assad in power. Washington has a half dozen or more conflicting goals, none of are important enough to warrant the use of force.

Syria’s civil war does not implicate any of Washington’s traditional Middle Eastern interests, most importantly Israel and oil. America’s chief concern should be the Islamic State, not Assad regime. Candidate Trump correctly opined: “our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.”

Advocates of regime change claim that only through Assad’s ouster can Daesh be defeated. However, the existing government remains the biggest military barrier to the radicals. Moreover, the group grew out of Iraq’s sectarian war and would continue to promote its “caliphate” in a post-Assad Syria. Alas, history is full of examples — Soviet Union, Nicaragua and Iran, among others — in which brutal radicals defeat decent liberals after they together depose a hated dictator. Unless the U.S. is willing to occupy the country, impose a new government, and remain until the state is rebuilt, the worst Syrians are likely to control a post-Assad future. And the results could be ugly even if Washington stuck around, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Retired Gen. John Allen and author Charles R. Lister argued that “the credibility of the United States as the leader and defender of the free world must be salvaged.” But the Syrian tragedy has little to do with “the free world”: brutal civil wars have occurred since the dawn of mankind. And Washington’s chief duty is to defend America, not referee other nations’ conflicts.

Yet ivory tower warriors continue to urge greater U.S. military involvement. Some propose targeting Russia with additional sanctions, which would not likely dissuade Moscow from acting on behalf of what it perceives as its important interests. However, further penalties would discourage cooperation even where the two nations’ interests coincided.

Another option is more training and better weapons for so-called moderates. Yet even President Obama admitted that there were few past cases when support for insurgents “actually worked out well.” In a recent interview President-Elect Trump contended that “we have no idea who these people are” and as a candidate complained that “they end up being worse” than the regime.

The reality is nuanced — Syria’s insurgents span the spectrum — but the administration’s experience has been a cruel disappointment. An anonymous American official admitted to the Washington Post: U.S.-backed forces are “not doing any better on the battlefield, they’re up against a more formidable adversary, and they’re increasingly dominated by extremists.” There’s no reason to expect better under the new administration.

Indeed, noted the BBC, “many of the more moderate rebel groups that the U.S. backs have formed a strategic alliance with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra] and now fight alongside it.” Weapons previously provided to the moderates often ended up in the hands of more radical forces. Greater aid might prolong the fighting but would be unlikely to give the “good guys” victory. Providing anti-aircraft missiles would threaten Russian as well as Syrian aircraft, risking a significant escalation if Moscow responded with greater force. And any leakage to radical jihadists could result in attacks on Western airliners.

Establishing a “no-fly” and/or “safe” zone has become a panacea for many U.S. policymakers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is an obvious way to appear to do something. However, protecting civilians in this way would simultaneously immunize combatants — attracting insurgents who would use such areas as a sanctuary, encouraging further regime and Russian attacks.

Moreover, Washington would have to do more than simply declare such a zone to exist. Enforcing it would be an act of war requiring continuous military action. U.S. officials have estimated that the effort would take hundreds of aircraft, thousands of personnel and hundreds of millions of dollars or more a month. Washington would have to destroy the Syrian anti-air defense system, no simple task. Indeed, in one of her conversations revealed by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that imposing a no fly zone would “kill a lot of Syrians” and “a lot of civilians.”

A true “no-fly” zone also would require preventing Russian air operations as well. Trump complained to the Wall Street Journal that by attacking Assad “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria.” Moscow officials have warned against strikes that would threaten Russian military personnel; Moscow already has introduced its advanced S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. Nevertheless, several GOP presidential candidates advocated downing Russian aircraft, if necessary. Yet it would be mad to commit an unprovoked act of war against a nuclear-armed power over a third nation’s conflict in which the U.S. has no substantial interest. Moscow would not likely yield peacefully.

Why let this declining power “push around the United States, which has the world’s biggest economy” and “greatest military,” asked Washington Postcolumnist Richard Cohen? Because Moscow has far more at stake and as a result is willing to accept greater costs and take greater risks than is America. Worse, Moscow would feel pressure to maintain its credibility and preserve its international status against an overbearing United States.

The result could be the very conflict America and the Soviet Union avoided during the entire Cold War. One anonymous U.S. official told the Washington Post: “You can’t pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against Russia.” During the campaign Trump warned: “you’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton,” since fighting Syria would mean “fighting Syria, Russia and Iran.”

Direct military intervention also would be possible, but would raise the stakes dramatically. Special operations forces, drones, airstrikes, and even an Iraq-style invasion all are possible. But none would enjoy sustained public or allied support or end the ongoing murder and mayhem. Victory, whatever that meant, would simply trigger a new round of fighting for dominance in a post-Assad Syria, as occurred in Iraq. And conflict with Moscow could not easily be avoided.

How would any of this serve U.S. interests? The American people have no meaningful stake in the outcome. The Assad regime’s fate is largely irrelevant to Washington. For nearly a half century under both Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, who ruled previously, Damascus was hostile to the U.S. But Syria lost more than it won and never posed a threat to America or impeded Washington’s dominance in the Middle East. Once the country dissolved into civil war the Assad regime’s ability to harm others essentially disappeared. Even if the government survives, its influence will be much diminished for years.

Washington worries about instability, but the U.S. has created greater chaos through its foolish war-making in the Mideast. Obviously, ending the Syrian civil war would be best for everyone, but a jihadist victory, likely if Assad is defeated, would threaten American interests more than continuing instability. Sen. John McCain, among others, claims that Assad’s survival guarantees continuation of the war, but Washington cannot halt the conflict and is best served by staying out of the bloody imbroglio.

“Moderate” insurgents would be angered by Washington’s withdrawal, but they are unlikely ever to gain power. America might lose its “leverage” over such nominal allies as Riyadh and Ankara, but there is little evidence that Washington has gained anything from its supposed influence. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has essentially abandoned the fight against the Islamic State and Turkey is more often attacking Kurds than Daesh.

Even if Assad fell, Washington would have no control over what followed. Without ongoing American support, the so-called “moderates” would do no better against the radical forces than they have done against the Syrian army. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died after the Bush administration blew up the country demonstrate that good intentions are an insufficient basis for U.S. policy.

Clinton criticized “the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia” in Syria. But Moscow’s objectives there do not threaten America. Russia’s alliance with Syria goes back decades. Washington should do what is in America’s interest, not what is against Russia’s interest.

Of course, Syria is a humanitarian horror. But the civil war is not as bad as other conflicts largely ignored by the U.S., such as the mass slaughter in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Moreover, Syria is not genocide, a la Rwanda or Cambodia, but a civil war, in which a most of the dead are combatants, and from all sides. The bombing of civilian areas is horrific, but hardly a new military tactic, and one which Washington has only recently come to reject.

Nor could the conflict be settled without using extraordinary force. Merely fudging the balance of military power won’t end the killing. If jihadist groups took control after Assad’s collapse and his allies’ withdrawal, Washington would face pressure to “do something” to protect Alawites, Christians and perhaps even “moderate” insurgents and their supporters. The U.S. has neither the responsibility nor the resources to police the globe.

Finally, the administration has unfinished business involving anti-American radicals, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra/al-Sham. But Assad’s ouster would empower both groups. They remain primarily insurgents which can be dealt with on the ground by the surrounding nations which they most threaten.

Donald Trump had only just been declared president-elect when those controlled U.S. foreign policy began urging him to conform to their disastrous designs in the Middle East. However, Trump appears to have learned from the past. He told the Wall Street Journal: “I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria.”

The incoming administration should announce that the U.S. is staying out. Syria is a tragedy beyond America’s control. Only the battling local factions and regional parties can reach a stable settlement. Washington should seek to make the best of a bad situation and encourage negotiations to end the killing and limit the activities of Islamic radicals.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and a Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy