Don't take the wrong steps in Syria, Iraq and the fight against terrorism

Don't take the wrong steps in Syria, Iraq and the fight against terrorism
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The president has made the right decision in delaying withdrawal from Syria, but he needs to go further. There is a case for limiting the U.S. role in Syria. The United States has no reason to provide aid to Bashar Assad in rebuilding his power in Syria, and no reason not to place the full burden of funding his regime on Iran and Russia. That kind of pressure could be a key part of actually forming some kind of U.S. strategy for dealing with the large portions of Syria that now are back under the control of a failed dictator.

Leaving Syria too soon is a very different story, as Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the central region, has made clear. A withdrawal deprives the United States of diplomatic leverage, abandons the last vestiges of moderate Arab forces in Syria, and exposes the Kurdish forces that did much to defeat ISIS to defeat by Assad and Turkey. It will fundamentally undermine the already fading trust of our other Arab strategic partners, be seen as a major defeat of the United States by Russia and Iran, and as a further opening to intervention by an increasingly authoritarian Turkey in the Arab world.

ISIS and terrorism are not yet defeated

It is a dangerous mistake to assume that withdrawal from Syria can come soon and before ISIS is fully defeated, and at a time when other extremist movements are gathering power. The defeat of ISIS as a “caliphate” or protostate will leave thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria. Many, if not a majority, of the other fighters left in Syria are part of extremist groups, several of which have ties to Al Qaeda.

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ISIS has been the most important single organized threat in Syria and Iraq, but it was only part of the problem even in 2016, when it was far more powerful than today. The START database on terrorism, which is as close to an official unclassified data base as we have, records 472 incidents of terrorism in Syria in 2016. Only 168, or 36 percent, of those incidences were caused by ISIS.

U.S. advisers and airpower in eastern Syria also play a critical role in securing Iraq. The highest START estimate of ISIS-caused incidents in Iraq was 1,202 out of 3,356, which again is only 36 percent. No one has yet “won” the fight against terrorism, and most counterterrorism expert feels that such threats will continue to be critical in some parts of the Middle East for at least the next decade.

Our civil efforts are as important as our military ones, even if we could ignore the human dimension of the tragedy in Syria. The fight against terrorism has so far concentrated on dealing with the symptoms and not the causes, and largely on fighting ISIS alone. As a result, suspending $200 million in humanitarian aid does far more than deprive U.S. moral and ethical influence, it again deprives us of diplomatic leverage and feeds terrorism.

Nothing has happened to reduce the problems in governance, economics, and internal unity that led to the rise of extremism and terrorism in the first place. Surrendering U.S. influence and leverage in Syria will let these causes fester in a country where the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 13.1 million people — half of Syria's population — are in need. A total of 5.6 million are refugees and 6.1 million more are internally displaced. More than half are children and young adults. Putting Syria under a failed Assad regime makes this a potential explosion of lasting anger and extremism.

Putting costs and benefits into perspective

As for costs, we need strategic patience, and it is fundamentally wrong to talk about costs of $7 trillion. Anything like this total must include the total cost of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, massive estimates about additional opportunity costs, and large amounts of regular defense spending that were concealed in the wartime overseas contingency accounts.

In any case, the U.S. military has vastly reduced the cost of our presence in Syrian and Iraq by relying on airpower and limited numbers of train and assist forces to support host country ground forces. This eliminates the need to deploy U.S. ground combat units, and massively reduces our costs as well as casualties. If one looks at the president’s fiscal 2019 budget request, the cost of training and equipping Syrian opposition forces drops from $500 million in fiscal 2018 to $300 million. No estimates are provided of the cost of airpower, but these too are likely to be far smaller.

The costs of staying Iraq are also dropping from $1.27 billion in fiscal 2018 to $850 million in fiscal 2019. We should have learned from rushing out of Iraq, and trying to rush out of Afghanistan, that doing so before host country forces are ready could waste the money we plan to spend on making Iraq secure, allow it to truly defeat ISIS, and give it the strength to deal with Iran.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.