Buck Sexton: Trump’s Syria policy can prevent another hellish war

Buck Sexton: Trump’s Syria policy can prevent another hellish war
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While the Islamic State has lost nearly all its territory in Syria, multiple crises still grip the country and any one of them could spiral out of control. Syria is still a battlefield for warring factions, failed state, and humanitarian disaster. As it exists on a map, Syria is now largely a fiction. It has been shattered into de facto statelets, with the Assad regime in control of roughly half the country. The rest of it is up for grabs.

The Trump administration has wisely chosen to maintain a force of several thousand U.S. troops and contractors in Syria to help prevent rapid security deterioration. Secretary Tillerson, in remarks earlier this week at the Hoover Institute, announced the decision to keep troops in country. Tillerson also made it clear that the Trump team has learned from the mistakes of the Obama administration in Iraq.

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It was President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 that led to the jihadist nightmare of an ISIS army seizing Mosul, threatening to assault Erbil, and even making it to the outer reaches of Baghdad in 2014. That Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and the rest of the Trump administration’s national security team are taking precautions to avoid a similar debacle is absolutely the right approach.

But a quick survey of the current challenges in Syria indicates that, even with a U.S.-led coalition maintaining an on the ground presence in Syria, the path ahead is full of pitfalls. While one of the stated goals of the Trump administration for Syria is supporting the United Nations-brokered political process, simply preventing a renewed conflict from breaking out is much more likely to be the focus of U.S. efforts.

Even at greatly diminished strength, ISIS remains a threat. Many of the group’s fighters melted back into the civilian population along what some call the “Syraq” corridor between eastern Syria and western Iraq. The group can effectively hide in that sparsely populated desert region and emerge to conduct insurgency-style attacks. In fact, that was the strategy Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the earlier iteration of what became ISIS, relied on until U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq in 2011. ISIS are undoubtedly planning a similar rebound now.

The Kurds in Syria are also a major flashpoint. Their role as essential U.S. allies against the Islamic State has not mollified the Turks, who continue to view the Kurdish YPG as nothing more than re-branded PKK terrorists. Despite U.S. plans to use the Kurds as a “border protection force” in northern Syria, the Turks have recently shelled the Kurdish-held region of Afrin with artillery. A Turkish military incursion across the Syrian border targeting the Kurds could open up a whole new front in the conflict.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad remains defiant. While the international community still calls for him to step down, Assad isn’t going anywhere. His forces continue to battle rebels in Idlib, near the Turkish border in the north of the country, and Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. As long as Assad thinks he can hold out against the various factions seeking his overthrow, plans to transition Syria to representative democracy will be a pipe dream.

To be sure, a limited U.S. troop presence in Syria cannot solve these problems. After 7 years of civil war, an estimated half a million dead, and a remorseless regional proxy battle playing out from Aleppo to Deraa, there are still far too many forces at work jockeying for influence in Syria and seizing every opportunity to reignite widespread armed conflict.

Nonetheless, American Special Forces, air power, and other forward deployed personnel in Syria provide leverage in an area where we would otherwise have very little. Suppressing any ISIS resurgence, holding the Turks back from a confrontation with the Kurds, and keeping an eye on Iranian and Russian moves in the region are all much easier with U.S. assets in place.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE is wise to allow the U.S. military to stay in Syria and finish the job. How long that will take, and what an acceptable end state looks like, is still to be determined. But neither U.S. interests in the region — nor the Syrian people — can afford to risk a return to the hellish anarchy that all started when Assad was left to be an entirely Arab problem.

Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of the nationally syndicated radio program “Buck Sexton with America Now.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.