There is no prize in Syria for the US

There is no prize in Syria for the US
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ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reportedly dead, the result of a U.S. special operation in Syria over the weekend. The news came just a day after video footage from northern Syria showed U.S. forces moving back into the area, after their abrupt withdrawal a little more than a week ago.

The mission to take out al-Baghdadi was a tactical success and no tears should be shed for his death. But this changes nothing about the security situation in Syria. By putting troops back in Syria, President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE is again needlessly putting U.S. forces in harm’s way.

The Washington Post reported that Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP governors move to cut unemployment benefits as debate rages over effects Trump critics push new direction for GOP Graham warns about trying to 'drive' Trump from GOP: 'Half the people will leave' MORE (R-S.C.) and officials in the Pentagon intentionally brought the subject of oil to the president as a means to convince him to send troops back into Syria, given his past obsession with expropriating oil from the Middle East. But that argument was just a ploy. The establishment in Washington doesn’t ever want to leave Syria, oil or no oil. They don’t want to imagine a world where the U.S. doesn’t at least attempt to run the show.


The decision to re-enter Syria is a mistake. There is no coherent security rationale for doing so. There’s nothing to gain and no geopolitical prize to be won. Withdrawal was and remains the correct policy.

The chorus of criticism over the past year for the president’s admittedly confused Syria policy is twofold. Hawks in Washington are worried about a Syria that has Russian troops on its soil — with an official invitation from Damascus.

The lack of American presence is wrongly seen as capitulating to Putin and increasing Russian power vis-a-vis the U.S. The critics also wrongly contend that ISIS will re-emerge following their fall of their caliphate earlier this year, and pose a threat to the U.S.

Both are terrible reasons for staying in Syria.

Russia has a long history of influence in Syria and is geographically much closer — Assad invited them in to help win the civil war. That support is unlikely to end anytime soon. That alone makes Syria a poor arena from which to try to compete with the Russians.


On top of that, Syria is also a poor and fractured state. It has limited oil and gas revenue, and it is unlikely they would cede that to partners, as it needs it for its own reconstruction. All that Syria has to offer outsiders is a chance to participate in a sectarian civil war. If Russia wants to get bogged down in the Middle East, the U.S. should not stop them.

Concerns about ISIS are also overblown and not a good reason to stay in Syria. It is true that ISIS has not disappeared. And they never will. Defining defeat as their total elimination and that a presence in Syria is necessary until then is the very definition of a “forever war” and is a recipe for failure. Military force can’t totally kill ISIS — it is at its most basic a set of ideas.

Meanwhile, local actors are able to handle what is left of ISIS. All of the various regional powers involved in the conflict in Syria — Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara — are all enemies of the radical group and do not want them to re-establish their caliphate anymore than the U.S. does. ISIS is a regional threat and should be treated as such.

Only when there is a credible and actionable threat from the region should the U.S. even consider getting involved, and that doesn’t necessarily mean ground troops. The U.S.’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities allow it to monitor and strike at threats from afar, with proper legal authority.

Limited, one-off raids, such as the one that took out al-Baghdadi on Saturday, are also acceptable — again, with proper legal authority and so long as there are no intentions to turn it into an open-ended policing mission.

Syria is not a prize for anyone. There is no reason for an indefinite U.S. presence there. President Trump should stop caving to the establishment and actually — finally — withdraw.

Jerrod A. Laber is a Washington-based writer, a fellow at Defense Priorities and a senior contributor for Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.