Withdrawal from Syria ... faster, please

Neoconservative stalwart, Michael Ledeen is famous for using the catchphrase "faster please,” advocating for regime change in the Middle East. Leading the charge for the Iraq War, Ledeen wrote,"One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. If we wage the war effectively, we will bring down the terror regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria."  

More than 15 years after the invasion of Iraq, Ledeen's prediction has not happened. All we've done is create a cauldron. If anything, we should be saying "faster please" to finding a way to extricate ourselves from that cauldron.

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It would appear that's what President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE wants to do. He tweeted, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency." And according to one U.S. defense official, the Pentagon is planning for a "full" and "rapid" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

Invariably, neoconservatives and liberal internationalists alike will balk at such a decision, arguing that we need to stay. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBooker calls for hearings on reports of ICE using solitary confinement GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (R-S.C.) — often a Trump ally — is one such critic. According to Graham, Trump’s call for withdrawal “will be an Obama-like mistake.”— a politicized charge meant to irk the president.

However, political rhetoric aside, the reality is that Syria is not a direct threat to U.S. national security that warrants committing American soldiers to fight in that country. 

To begin, ISIS is not an existential threat to America. It is, however, a direct threat to Bashar Assad's regime. And the group's desire to create a caliphate based on its radical brand of Islam makes it a threat in the region. As such, it is primarily up to the Syrians, Iraqis, and others in the region — such as the Turks and Gulf States — to combat ISIS. After all, they have more at stake and the most to lose. 

It is important to remember that ISIS represents an ideological war within Islam. ISIS is at war with its fellow Muslims who do not agree with and do not want to live by their radical version of Islam. Although Brett H. McGurk, the United States envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, recently stated, “The military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” the war against ISIS can be fought and won only by Muslims, not the U.S. military. So keeping U.S. troops in Syria puts them in the middle of someone else's civil war and makes them an easy target. And it plays to the ISIS narrative that America is waging a war against Islam — making it easier to tap into anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world to recruit to their ranks and inspire jihad. 

But isn't Assad a threat? To be sure, he is an unsavory, odious dictator and a thug. As such, he is certainly a threat to Syrians who oppose his rule — as demonstrated by his use of chemical weapons against his own people on several occasions. However, the regime in Damascus is not a direct military threat to the United States. Syria has no military capability to attack America. And to the extent that U.S. forces are threatened by the Syrian military, it’s only because they’re within range of their weapons. 

What neoconservatives should be concerned about is the potential consequences of Russian intervention on behalf of Assad. Why should we run the risk of direct confrontation with Russia — the only country in the world with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States — over a regime in Damascus that does not pose a threat to our national security? 

And while Sen. Graham is concerned that "[a]n American withdrawal will put the Kurds ... at tremendous risk," he should be more concerned about the American people he serves and the Constitution he is sworn to uphold, which is "to provide for the common defense," not defending other people or countries. 

Ultimately, the primary and overriding criteria for putting the U.S. military in harm’s way should be when U.S. national security is directly at stake. That has never been the case in Syria. It is well past time to remove our troops rather than continue to needlessly risk their spilling their blood. Faster, please.   

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.