Syria’s seven-year civil war is likely in its final act. A single province remains under insurgent control and strongman President Bashar al-Assad is, with Russian and Iranian support, steadily regaining power. While not eliminated, what’s left of the Islamic State has lost nearly all its territory to Assad and shifted its focus elsewhere.
The Syrian regime’s final assault on the rebel stronghold of Idlib province may not be complete for some time — the region is teeming with local civilians and refugees, raising international alarm over further humanitarian crisis — but make no mistake, Damascus is winning.
What, then, for the United States? Washington maintains about 2,000 American boots on the ground in Syria. They’re tasked with fighting ISIS and supporting Syrian militias and despite President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE’s occasional expression of desire to bring these troops home, there is no evidence they’ll leave Syrian soil anytime soon. “We’re not going to talk timelines,” Army Col. Thomas Veale told Task & Purpose in June. Syria “is a conditions-based campaign, right here and the condition is — as very clearly stated — the annihilation of ISIS.”
That may be clear on paper, but in reality, it guarantees an open-ended occupation with all the costs of blood and treasure endless commitments entail. An international terrorist organization like ISIS will not be verifiably annihilated and even if it were, some new gang of horrors would arise to take its place (ISIS is but one outgrowth of deeper, more complex problems plaguing the region). Like a Zeno’s paradox of the battlefield, there will always be a little bit more to do. Syria, following Iraq and Afghanistan, will become a generational conflict America can always forget but will struggle to quit.
That is not a security-neutral outcome. It does not simply seek to accomplish an impossible task; fail to contribute anything positive to U.S. security; and accomplish nothing for Syrians. No, maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria actively puts America at risk — at risk of war with Iran, or even Russia.
Just this Monday, Iranian forces fired six ballistic missiles in eastern Syria. Emblazoned with phrases including “death to America,” “death to Israel,” and “death to the house of Saud”— standard Iranian political hyperbole, but noteworthy nevertheless—the missiles targeted militia fighters allegedly implicated in the deadly attack on an Iranian military parade last month.
They landed within three miles of U.S. troops. No Americans were harmed, but certainly they could have been. For what?
And while Russian and Iranian soldiers tend to be in more eastern and southerly regions of Syria than do American forces, this sort of close contact — or worse — is far from improbable. Moscow has twice issued warnings that it may take action near U.S. military stations and the Pentagon has responded by increasing its presence in the area.
Dozens of Russian nationals were reportedly killed by U.S.-led fighters earlier this year. A Syrian retaliation for an Israeli attack accidentally killed several Russian troops. And the United States is allied with both Turkish forces and Kurdish militia, who are fighting each other.
In sum, Syria is a crowded, complex, dangerous place ripe for miscalculation that could quickly escalate into a broader war nobody wants.
The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Assad regime, the remnants of ISIS and various militias and terrorist organizations — sometimes distinguishable, but often not—are all in battle. The longer Washington maintains its reckless and unnecessary military intervention, the more likely a direct clash with Iran or Russia becomes.
Beyond not making things better in Syria, every day we stay risks making things far worse for ourselves.
The danger inherent in this battlefield proximity should not be underestimated, nor should its possible consequences. The death of American soldiers at Iranian hands, even if unintended, could provide exactly the sort of pretext for trigger-happy administration figures like National Security Advisor John Bolton to confront Iran with military power. Bolton has long been clear he wants regime change in Tehran and our unnecessarily perilous posture in Syria could lead to exactly the type of conflict that grows into a third Gulf War.
That would be a grave but easily avoidable mistake. “Besides the sheer illegality” of staying in Syria long-term — such an endeavor has never been authorized by Congress, as the Constitution requires — "the most striking thing is that it has absolutely no connection to U.S. or allied security,” notes Daniel Larison at The American Conservative. “Iran’s military presence in Syria may not be desirable, but their evacuation from Syria isn’t necessary for the security of the United States or any treaty allies,” he continues. Thus the “time for stopping it and bringing U.S. forces out of Syria is now, because in another few years the blatantly illegal policy will have become accepted as just one more in a string of illegal presidential wars.”
Staying in Syria is a good way to get into a bad war with Iran, a war the United States neither needs nor wants. The best way to avoid this and other unintended consequences is to get out of Syria now.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill and The American Conservative, among other outlets.