A decade of policymaking failures is to blame for new Syria crisis

A decade of policymaking failures is to blame for new Syria crisis
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After months of being below the fold in the national media, U.S. involvement in Syria is back in the headlines after President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE unexpectedly announced his support of a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds, blindsiding policymakers and our Kurdish partners alike. 

The Turkish government, a NATO ally, has sought to increase control over its shared border with Syria for years, and now its only significant obstacle — U.S. troops standing between warring factions — appears to have been removed. Critics immediately pounced, forecasting everything from the resurrection of the Islamic State to the genocide of the Syrian Kurds to strengthening the position of Russia and Iran in the region.

But we did not get to this point in a vacuum. The current crisis — the seeming acquiescence to a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces — is the culmination of years of poor American strategy in Syria and an even worse policymaking process in the U.S. capital. 

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The Syrian civil war started as part of the larger Arab Spring movement against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East eight years ago. None of these protests were more destabilizing and deadly than those in Syria. Sectarian conflict erupted between the country’s Alawite/Shia regime and the politically disenfranchised Sunni majority, which spawned a wave of new jihadi movements and pulled in foreign interest from across the world. 

Then-President Obama at first attempted to articulate a policy centered on defeating the powerful new terrorist groups, most notably ISIS, seizing on the civil war’s power vacuum to threaten Syria’s neighbors and plot attacks outside the region.

But the Obama administration never seemed to understand the complexity of the conflict and waffled when pressed on related issues, like its posture towards the Bashar al-Assad regime, the involvement of its longtime backers Russia and Iran and other foreign actors, and the humanitarian crisis produced by the civil violence.

In Congress, many of the leading voices condemned Obama for his perceived weakness toward both terrorist groups and Assad — even though they were fighting against each other — and advocated for more forceful U.S. military intervention.

But a coherent policy never emerged, in large part because the American public was at odds with where Congress and even the Obama administration were on Syria.

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Obama asked Congress for authorization to strike in Syria in 2013, not out of respect for Congress’s constitutional prerogative to declare war — he had easily disregarded that in Libya two years earlier—but because he sought political cover from an American public that had soured on military expeditions in the Middle East. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll at that time, a clear majority of Americans opposed U.S. intervention in Syria, while only 25 percent would support even if Assad’s forces used chemical weapons. 

Congress then demurred on its own responsibilities and an opportunity to influence U.S. policy in Syria out of similar fears of being held accountable to their constituents. The same politicians who for months had publicly castigated the administration’s failure to act wilted even quicker when they had the chance to take responsibility.

But leaders in Washington were not close to being done with Syria; they simply moved toward policies for which they would not be held accountable.

From this came a string of disconnected and inconsistent tactics that did not serve any defined national interests or grand strategy. These included the Pentagon’s failed train and equip program — whose rebel groups famously ended up fighting with the groups the CIA was secretly training; half-hearted threats and ineffective rhetoric about the Assad regime; and window-dressing diplomatic efforts aimed mainly at placating humanitarian concerns.

The tactic that ended up being the most enduring was partnering with Syrian Kurdish forces, who had an even stronger interest in defeating ISIS’s caliphate. These militias were effective in executing our anti-terrorism mission against ISIS but would never threaten the Assad regime.

They have their own regionally destabilizing aspirations to national sovereignty — a separate interest for which the U.S. never signed up — and are seen as a threat by our Turkish allies. As should have been obvious at the time, this was never a permanent arrangement, but rather a temporary partnership that would’ve had significant repercussions over a longer period. 

These initiatives successfully kept Congress safe from political blowback though, as they were quietly funded through massive spending bills with little fanfare. But they were strategically shortsighted at best.

Ambassador Susan Rice, who in 2013 was serving as Obama’s national security advisor, recently argued in “The Atlantic” that the Obama administration found the ”least bad” option in Syria. While it is true that his administration could have been pressured by interventionists in Congress to do worse, Rice’s statement is disingenuous. Neither Obama nor Congress ever articulated a concrete Syria policy at all. They shortchanged the policymaking process to avoid political costs, and we — and the Kurds — are suffering the inevitable consequences of that confusion today.

Trump will rightly take criticism for the manner in which he is reshuffling the U.S. troop presence in Syria, but we shouldn’t look at the last week of U.S.-Syria relations alone.  His move was set in motion by a fundamental failure to determine our national security interests in Syria and match them to proper strategies through the constitutionally mandated process.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities, Inc. He previously worked for nearly a decade on Capitol Hill, most recently as the lead staffer for Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Overnight Defense: Trump cancels presser, cuts short NATO trip | Viral video catches leaders appearing to gossip about Trump | Dem witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses | Trump reportedly mulling more troops in Middle East Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators MORE (R-Utah) on the Senate Armed Services Committee.