Former Navy SEAL: 3 essential steps Trump must take in Syria

One of President Obama’s greatest foreign policy failures is the conflict in Syria. Once the “red line” was crossed, with little response from the United States, our credibility was destroyed globally.

This failure to promote stability or contain the devolution of the Middle East comes in large part from a lack of understanding about the problem or the culture of the region. Since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, our military leaders have warned of a power vacuum that could lead to increased extremism and instability. Today, Syria is in a very similar position. It is crucial that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE makes the right call.

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Different from Obama, or even President Bush, Trump approaches situations from a practical, not political, perspective. When Trump decides to build a building, he sets a clear goal that is easily measured.  Plans are made ahead of time on how many rooms, how many floors, how many people, the timeline, the budget etc.  

 

In Iraq and Syria, clear goals and measures of success were never (and are still not) defined. This leaves the U.S. military guessing on next steps and soldiers frustrated and confused.  So, it’s not terribly surprising we find ourselves in the midst of a chaotic, seemingly endless mess.

Notwithstanding the no doubt well-intentioned celebrity Instagram campaigns to “stop the violence,” few practical solutions have emerged from anywhere in Hollywood, or Washington. I find this somewhat surprising, given that the near total collapse of the region (in which I give Obama an “assist”) has illuminated the now very limited choices that must be addressed in a specific order.

Step one: Understand the conflict as it is. Right now, ISIS is running virtually free, primarily because Obama has both failed to properly understand the threat and failed to take appropriate actions. There are currently more than a half dozen pieces to the puzzle in Syria: President Bashar Assad, Syrian rebels, ISIS, Kurds, Turkey, Russia, Iran, The United States, and a recent commitment from Jordan.  

On team Assad, we have Russia bombing the rebels and in cahoots with Iran.  Meanwhile the U.S. is arming Syrian Kurds in the north and anti-Assad rebels elsewhere (whom we know little about and from parts of whom ISIS spawned). ISIS is fighting the Kurds but not Assad, as it seeks to expand the Caliphate.  Turkey is fighting the Kurds and ISIS (though at one point in time also purchased oil from them).  

This conflict is not one good guy vs. one bad guy.  This is centuries of regional conflict now drawing the broader world into its vortex. None of it is simple.   

Step two: Trump must sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and get on the same page. We cannot afford another proxy war like we had in Afghanistan in the 1980’s (when we actually armed the Taliban with surface to air missiles to fend off Russian airstrikes). Russia and America need to agree on a target and policy and execute in coordination.

Let’s play out the scenarios.

Scenario one: If we follow Putin’s path, we leave Assad in power and we must let him run his nation as he sees fit, no matter how heinous.  Assad will not hesitate to carry out further military action against internal uprisings.  Russia will gain a military presence in the country and region.

The country will be relatively stable under the dictatorship but groups like ISIS will not be widely targeted by Assad, even within his geographic boundaries.  As such, America would need to negotiate an agreement that would allow us a scope to actively target ISIS on the ground, with no intervention from the regime.  The risk here is that Syria may not cooperate and hinder our efforts, leading to option two.

Scenario two: If we follow through on our apparent current path and overthrow Assad’s dictatorship, we need to be willing to commit to decades, even generations, of occupancy. This could amount to tens of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars over the course of the campaign. We must weigh this against what we would gain.

Without the long-term commitment, we can expect further expansion of groups like ISIS and a repeat of what happened in Iraq. However, this could come with a cost. Russia is fierce to defend its geopolitical interests, as proved in Ukraine when they secured the Crimea peninsula. This move could bring even more tension between Russia and the United States unless there is an agreement prior to action.

Step three: Execution and resolve. We must be willing to commit the resources and efforts regardless of political fallout. This may include resisting intervention while Assad murders his citizens or it could include U.S. military action, occupancy and/or mass airstrikes. This is difficult for many politicians to understand when the thing that matters most is their reelection.

Further, the culture of partisan reporting and misinformation in the media leaves many politicians putting out inconsequential fires, rather than focusing on delivering their core message.  Trump is uniquely qualified to implement this step. Instead of allowing the press to distort his message, he consistently goes right to the public with his intentions and explanations.

America must start to make holistic foreign policy decisions. No one element of the Syrian conflict can be addressed in a vacuum. This has the beginnings of a global conflict with the potential to destabilize much more than just the Middle East. The humanitarian case must be balanced with the stability of the world and America must realize we cannot fix the world.

No matter the approach, we must refrain from making an emotional decision and look more to an equitable, practical solution.

Carl Higbie is a former Navy SEAL and a communication and political strategist for AmeriMan LLC. He is the author of "Enemies, Foreign and Domestic: A SEAL's Story." Follow him on Twitter @Carlhigbie.


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