Is Trump looking for indefinite presence in Syria?

Is Trump looking for indefinite presence in Syria?
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From the moment the U.S. Air Force began unloading munitions on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria, policymakers in Washington have sold the U.S. intervention as a limited operation with narrow goals: degrading and defeating the terrorist group’s military capabilities. After this was achieved, U.S. forces would theoretically pack up their equipment and come back home.

Yet, more than four years later, the Trump administration is reportedly preparing to expand the mission to the much broader objective of pushing Iranian forces and Iranian-organized Shia militias out of Syria.


The White House appears to believe that the combination of strong economic sanctions on Iran and an indefinite U.S. military presence in Eastern Syria will eventually compel Tehran to leave a country it has invested vast sums of money and manpower to influence.

Last week on the sidelines of a security conference in Bahrain, U.S. counter-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk told a regional publication that the U.S. will maintain an enduring troop presence in Syria until it forms a fully independent government free of Iranian influence.

If President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE doesn’t put a stop to the mission creep and re-embrace his original instinct to pull out, the American people will very likely see another near-permanent deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East. Thus, continuing the last 17 years of a U.S. Middle East policy characterized by the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money and endless military operations with no security benefit to the homeland. 

Those in the foreign policy establishment who believe Washington can squeeze Iran out of Syria misunderstand what is truly important to U.S. national security interests in the region; overestimate America’s capacity to mold the Middle East to its liking; and underestimate the importance Tehran subscribes to Syria.

There is no question that Iran’s foreign policy is often menacing to its neighbors. U.S. policy in the Middle East, however, should not be dictated by what Iran does or does not do on any given day. Rather, the policy should be based on America’s bottom-line security interests in the region, such as: defending the homeland from transnational terrorist groups and establishing pragmatic diplomatic, intelligence and economic partnerships with as many regional governments as possible. An Iran-intensive strategy — as the administration is contemplating in Syria — is a highly reactionary one that will inevitably lead to American participation in the region’s sectarian quicksand.

To the United States, Syria has never been particularly important. Before its civil war, Syria was a middle-level power with minor crude oil reserves largely at peace with Israel. After eight years of conflict, Syria is an even less significant player; its national economy has been destroyed and its society has ruptured. It will take at least a generation for Syria to recuperate, a transition that will take hundreds of billions of dollars and an extensive effort from the Syrian people at political reform and reconciliation. Syria is but one more dysfunctional country on the Middle Eastern chessboard which the U.S. does not have the money, understanding, capability, or security interest to resolve.

Syria, however, is an enormously vital piece of the puzzle for Iran. Since the Islamic Republic was founded, the Assad family has provided Tehran with a critical ally in an Arab world that largely views Iran through adversarial eyes. When the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad militarized in 2012, the Iranians accelerated military support, loans and fuel to Damascus in order to keep the regime afloat.

While exact figures are difficult to find, Tehran may have invested as much as $30 billion — in addition to facilitating the entry of thousands of Shia fighters to Syria, many from Afghanistan and Pakistan — to help Assad maintain a modicum of control. The fact some of this investment occurred at the same time the Iranian economy was under severe U.S. and multilateral sanctions over its nuclear program reflects just how essential the Iranian security establishment viewed Assad’s survival. 

In short, Iran has an exceedingly larger incentive to stay in Syria, far greater than the United States. Tehran has been willing to spend more and withstand more casualties in Syria because there is far more at stake. For Washington to believe it can pressure Iran to forgo its extensive, years-long investment through an indefinite military force posture in Syria is beyond credulity. 

As the Trump administration’s own National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy makes perfectly clear, the United States is in the early stages of a new era of global politics—one where geopolitical competition and state-to-state rivalry is on the ascendant.   

There is nothing geostrategic about repeating past mistakes in the Middle East. A near-permanent U.S. military mission in the sands of Eastern Syria, one highly unlikely to work, would be the exact opposite of the U.S. foreign policy realism the American people desire.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.