Syria proves again: If you fail to articulate a policy — you fail
The news is filled with dire predictions of the consequences of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of an area of Syria near the Turkish border and allow Turkish forces to move in. There is good reason for concern.
On the ground, the action will most definitely be understood by the Kurds — even those well outside of Syria — as yet another American betrayal. Hopes that the Turks, who hate the Kurds and consider them an existential threat, will act with restraint will almost certainly prove illusory. Expectations that Ankara, increasingly only a nominal NATO member and every day closer to Tehran, will respond to U.S. pressure will just as assuredly not be met.
And, yet, all the gnashing of teeth and criticism misses a central truth: The President’s decision and his change of course is the inevitable outcome of years, even decades, of poor decision making in Washington and an almost total lack of strategic vision. We are in Syria, with troops on the ground and people dying, and no one in Washington can articulate clearly why, what our goals are, or what victory looks like.
This has become the new normal in U.S. foreign policy.
We deploy troops. We expand our mission in stages as we identify things we can do and that seem to match with our military capabilities. We make tactical and operational decisions that are expedient in the short term, but give no thought to the long term consequences or how those decisions fit within the broader framework of our policy — because there is no policy.
In Iraq we opted to ally ourselves with the Shia, including a great many who were working for and with the Iranians, to further the short term goal of eliminating ISIS. That led us into the use of tactics and weapons that inflicted massive casualties on the Sunni population and literally flattened large portions of cities like Mosul. In the short term, that meant we crushed most of the so-called Caliphate. In the longer term, it has placed us perilously close to having handed the nation of Iraq to Iran on a silver platter.
In Syria we opted to ally ourselves not just with Kurdish forces but with Kurdish forces with close ties to Kurdish rebels waging a decades-old and very bloody insurgency against the Turks. That provided a ready pool of manpower. It made short term operational sense. It also put us on the wrong side of the Turkish-PKK struggle as far as Ankara was concerned and pulled us into the middle of a multi-sided ethnic and religious conflict.
There were alternatives.
In Iraq working with moderate Sunni elements, preventing the creation of Iranian-sponsored Shia militia, and pressuring Baghdad to keep its distance from Tehran might well have led not simply to the defeat of ISIS but the establishment of a stable, independent government thereafter and countered Iranian expansionism. To have taken those actions, however, we would have needed to have stopped, thought through the situation, and articulated a policy and a national strategy that made sense. We would have had to have recognized that while crushing ISIS was important, keeping Iraq from turning into a province of Iran was perhaps, in the long term, even more important.
In Syria we could have worked with Sunni elements as well to counter ISIS, but even before then — before we sent in troops at all — we needed to establish clearly why we were going and what the end state would be. If we were going to destroy ISIS and liberate those crushed under its tyranny then what was next? Who would govern the “liberated areas?” Would they be returned to the control of Assad and the regime in Damascus? Would they become part of some new nation state — part of Iraq, part of Turkey? What were the implications of any of these decisions?
We considered none of these factors. We put troops on the ground and lashed them up with allies who would help us achieve a short term goal — and deferred all discussion of where this would take us and how we would manage the implications for another time.
That time has come.
The use of military force does not constitute a strategy or a policy.
The military takes actions on the orders of the government of the United States, which by the way is supposed to include the Congress. The actions taken are intended to be consistent with and in furtherance of clearly articulated national objectives. When they are not, when that policy is absent, when no strategy has been crafted, the inevitable happens: We stumble forward, reactive and uncoordinated, until finally the price becomes too high.
We quit. We head for home. We leave the situation in many cases worse than we found it, and then — almost incredibly — we go do it again.
Nearly 7,000 American servicemen and women have died in combat since 9/11. They came from our inner cities, our small towns and our farms. Every one of them left behind grieving families and friends who everyday deal with the pain of loss. Tens of thousands of other American servicemen and women have been wounded, some horribly, and untold numbers still struggle with the psychological and emotional scars inflicted by their service.
President Trump may not have yet sorted out all the implications that will come from his decision to stand aside in Syria. What he has seized on, perhaps instinctively, is the essential truth with which we must contend going forward: If you fail to articulate a policy — you fail.
Charles “Sam” Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer with decades of experience undercover abroad. He took the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the 2003 invasion and retired in 2008 as head of the CIA counterterrorism unit tracking weapons of mass destruction. He is also a former U.S. Army officer and trial attorney. Faddis is currently a senior partner with Artemis, LLC and the senior editor for AND Magazine. He’s also the author of “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” and (with Mike Tucker) “Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq.”