Trump's only reasonable choice in Syria

Where the Trump administration’s strategy for Syria will go next is anyone’s guess. On the campaign trail, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE warned against “start[ing] World War III over Syria,” arguing the country’s internal conflicts should be addressed by regional powers instead of U.S. military intervention. But as president, he escalated American involvement, ordering strikes on Bashar al-Assad regime targets in 2017 and 2018, both times without congressional authorization.

Recent months have replayed this changeability in microcosm, with Trump announcing a complete U.S. exit from Syria that was promptly slow-walked into an indefinite “residual” commitment which the Joint Chiefs indicated Sunday will be something less than 1,000 U.S. troops.

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This is an odd and risky mediating position which should satisfy no one. Though U.S. military might is unparalleled, such a small force can hardly be expected to simultaneously hunt any lingering remnants of the Islamic State, protect our Kurdish partners, and contain Russian and Iranian influence over Syria’s future (all of which are demanded by Washington’s foreign policy establishment as open-ended conditions of American departure). What it can do is position us for the very great power conflict Trump once worried about, generating real risk while doing nothing for U.S. security or to bring peace for the Syrian people after nearly a decade of unthinkable civil war.

The downsides of interminably keeping a limited American presence in Syria should be evident with any attention to the missteps of our post-9/11 foreign policy. This sort of “endless” occupation is too limited to exert substantial influence over an entire nation’s reality on the ground, but it is plenty big enough to serve as a basis for fresh U.S. entanglement.

There are many actors, including Kurdish fighters, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government, who will work to prevent the sort of power vacuum in which ISIS and similar terror groups can flourish, but a prolonged U.S. military presence of a few hundred troops won’t make a meaningful difference. It can, however, easily become foundational to long-term nation-building commitments or even a fresh round of military intervention if conditions on the ground deteriorate. It will not be adequate to guard Kurdish fighters against attacks from Turkey, but it could exacerbate tensions with our NATO allies in Ankara. And it will not deter Russia and Iran from pursuing their perceived interests with their ally, Assad, but it will put Americans in danger of a confrontation—even accidental—that could well spark a far more serious fight.

Once this ill-advised half measure is rejected, we are left with a choice between dramatic escalation and complete withdrawal. The Trump administration could seek to overcome its present dilemmas by massively expanding its war in Syria, but this first option should be categorically dismissed.

The scale of intervention required to achieve objectives like eradicating ISIS’ remnants, its ideology, and its ilk (an impossible project, as foreign military intervention often fuels more terrorism than it eliminates) and shielding the Kurds would be enormous. The cost in American blood and treasure would be grotesquely high. Recall, the United States deployed upwards of 100,000 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan at each intervention’s height, and neither show of force could produce political reconciliation or force foreign regimes to reform their politics or their armies.

Why would Syria be any different? And why would Washington expect Americans weary of endless wars to give this futile strategy yet another go?

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A permanent ground force in Syria is not necessary for American security, and it puts U.S. troops needlessly in harm’s way. This degree of escalation would only make great power conflict with Russia or regional war with Iran more likely. The risk inherent in the present policy of long-term but small-scale occupation would only be magnified by a larger intervention. If a few hundred troops in Syria amp up avoidable tensions with Moscow and Tehran, imagine what tens of thousands would do.

The only reasonable course is the second option: moving forward with the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria that Trump promised in December. This is an overdue correction, the needful close of an intervention whose stated military objective of destroying ISIS’ caliphate has been achieved. Ending U.S. war in Syria would avoid the risk of mission creep and unintended consequences endemic to both our present approach and the escalation option. It would be one step of many needed to reform Washington’s broken foreign policy.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared in Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.