Syria too complex to make decisions in 280 characters … even for a president

Syria too complex to make decisions in 280 characters … even for a president
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE’s December decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria caught national security officials and international partners by surprise. The abrupt change in foreign policy occurred with no indication of discussion within the administration regarding national security interests, contributing to the confusion and criticisms, some valid and some hyperbolic.

The timing is horrible. Despite Trump’s optimistic assessment that “we won,” ISIS is not defeated and its resurrection as a formidable terror threat is possible with a premature removal of U.S. combat troops.  

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Blowback against his announcement happened immediately, with the resignations of James MattisJames Norman MattisUS leaves dozens of 'high value' ISIS detainees behind amid Syria retreat: report White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback Sunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions MORE as Defense secretary and Brett McGurk as special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey Graham opens door to calling Hunter Biden to testify MORE (R-S.C.) bluntly referred to Trump’s declaration of ISIS’s defeat as “fake news,” and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said it will make America “less safe.”

Fearing abandonment, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) asked the Syrian government for protection from possible attack by Turkey. Ankara considers the YPG the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and a terror organization that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “remove” from Manbij.

Seizing the opportunity to hasten the U.S. exit, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Trump’s decision, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it could result in “real prospects for a political settlement” in Syria. Iran said the presence of U.S. troops always was “illogical and a source of tension.”  

These responses are the consequence of mixed messages from senior administration officials, such as national security adviser John Bolton explaining the requirement for U.S. troops to remain in Syria and Trump simultaneously expressing desire to withdraw them immediately. Days before the announcement, McGurk said: “Nobody is saying that (ISIS fighters) are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”

Such communication blunders are the unfortunate result of a larger, systemic problem within the administration — the absence of an effective interagency process of assessment and discussion that the president is willing to follow in decision-making. How significant is this dysfunction? Consider that Trump reportedly made his decision to withdraw troops after a phone call with Erdogan.  

Over the past few weeks, Washington has come full circle. Trump now wants the pullout to happen at a “proper pace” and Bolton recently announced that some troops will remain until the remnants of ISIS are defeated and Turkey guarantees the safety of YPG forces. So much for the notion of an “immediate withdrawal.” Meeting these conditions could take months, if not longer.

Such disarray is self-inflicted and largely avoidable. A discussion regarding the complexities of U.S. policy in Syria would have better informed Trump’s decision-making, since there are good reasons to retain or withdraw troops.  

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There is merit to the premise that ISIS has lost its “physical caliphate” in Syria and no longer requires an enduring commitment of U.S. troops. Additionally, one can argue the U.S. presence prevents countries such as Turkey from assuming more of the security burden. That said, one can reasonably question whether “outsourcing” the ISIS fight to Turkey, Russia and Iran is the most strategically sound course for U.S. interests.  

Although defeating ISIS is a common goal for all stakeholders, Syria presents an asymmetry of national interests and a strategic conundrum for Washington. The Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argue that the United States does not have vital interests in Syria — it’s not a major oil producer, and its armed forces do not pose an existential threat to Israel. The risk of “mission creep” and potential for drawing the United States into another war in the Middle East with no vital national interests at stake provide sound rationale for Trump’s decision.  

By contrast, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s survival depends on winning the civil war. Moreover, keeping Assad in power is vital to Iran’s regional expansion and support for proxies (including Hezbollah), and is critical for maintaining Russia’s military foothold and facilitating its growing influence in the Middle East. This imbalance of interests among stakeholders in Syria supports Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer’s argument that Assad has already won.  

To be clear, the Obama administration also failed to address these difficult, contentious issues. After issuing his August 2012 "red line" ultimatum against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama decided against using military force. Former Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 He who must not be named: How Hunter Biden became a conversation-stopper Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid MORE later lamented that “we paid a price” for inaction. To make matters worse, the 2014 ISIS offensive forced Obama to send troops back into Iraq — and later Syria — despite his pledge of “no boots on the ground.”

Both administrations took the easier path in Syria by focusing on the near-term objective of defeating ISIS without asking the strategically important question: “And then, what?” Examining this question would raise essential foreign policy questions:

  • Can the United States accept an Assad victory in Syria, given the humanitarian costs of the civil war?
  • Can Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem live with an Iranian land bridge extending from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut?
  • Does a permanent Russian footprint and competition for regional influence pose a security threat to the United States and its partners?
  • Is Trump really willing to confront Turkey, a NATO partner, over U.S. support for the YPG? If not, how can the United States avoid appearing to be an unreliable security partner?  

None of these questions is revelatory but all are strategically important to guide foreign policy decisions, and they warrant consultation with Congress and coalition partners. Such a process would address the costs, benefits and tradeoffs associated with remaining in or withdrawing from Syria. Moreover, this would provide greater transparency and context regarding Trump’s decision for his critics and supporters.

The president should address the nation to explain how U.S. interests are best served by withdrawing from Syria, present a reasonable timeline that is coordinated with coalition partners, and pledge to secure guarantees regarding the Kurds’ safety and preventing  ISIS’s resurgence. Effective U.S. communication is critical because the international community suffers from whiplash when foreign policy decisions are announced and contradicted in short order.

One should not underestimate the difficulty of determining U.S. national interests in Syria, given the number of stakeholders and their agendas. That said, the absence of a disciplined process to make that determination means it’s likely that Trump soon will tweet yet another decision that continues this counterproductive “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle of foreign policymaking.   

James L. Cook is an associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he specializes in strategy, military force planning and the Middle East. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he has served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Europe and the U.S. Central Command region, most recently in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.