The United States strategy in Syria has gone horribly off the rails, and staying in Syria for the foreseeable future will do nothing to stop the continuing threat of militant Islam, nor will it preserve U.S. interests in the region. Without a strategic course change, President Trump is correct in wanting to bring our troops elsewhere for missions that can advance U.S. national security.
Currently, U.S. policy in Syria has been effectively delegated to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is solely focused on defeating the scraps of ISIS in Syria and democracy-building inside the country.
NBC News reported Wednesday that Mattis and other Pentagon officials told the president that they want to see through the fight against ISIS in Syria and that a U.S. withdrawal from the country would jeopardize those gains.
“Defense Secretary James Mattis and other top officials made the case to Trump that the fight against ISIS was almost finished but a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces at this time would risk losing gains the U.S. has made in the fight,” the NBC report stated, citing an administration official.
The fight against ISIS has been an incredible success on the tactical level. The jihadi group has lost over 90 percent of the territory it once held.
The Washington foreign policy establishment overwhelmingly agrees with Mattis’ plea for staying in Syria. Many of them argue that if the United States leaves, Syria will effectively be ceded to Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Others say that leaving would also entail the restoration of the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria.
But the logic behind that justification for staying makes no sense. Because of the current U.S. strategy in Syria that only focuses on ISIS, we are already ceding the region and the country to Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Mattis, who supports closer engagement with Turkey at the expense of our Kurdish allies, has stated that he has no intention of changing his goal for Syria, so there’s not much of a rationale behind the argument that the U.S. presence in the country must be maintained as a bulwark against Iran and Russia.
In fact, Mattis, who backs the Iran nuclear deal, has already established that he is relatively uninterested in countering Iran’s regional aggression. Mattis continues to use strong language when it comes to Iranian expansion, but has not committed to stopping Iran’s territorial aggression, even as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah continue increasing their build-up in Syria.
So what exactly is the U.S. mission in Syria, now that ISIS has been almost wholly obliterated?
It looks like we’re getting back to some good old-fashioned, guilty-conscience democracy-building and resurrecting the worst impulses of the Bush and Obama administrations.
CENTCOM Commander Gen. Charles Votel said of the continuing mission in Syria this week:
“The hard part, I think, is in front of us, and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes.”
The Mattis Pentagon is in a way articulating the ideas behind “you break it, you own it,” or the “Pottery Barn rule,” which was embraced by both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations. It is a Jeffersonian democracy-building principle that places demands on the United States for rebuilding and restoring nations where previous U.S. military action occurred. It has had horrific consequences for the countless American lives lost and families torn apart by sending soldiers far away from their homes to complete rebuilding projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With Mattis in charge, staying in Syria means ceding the country to Bashar Assad, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, while abandoning the Kurds. Leaving the country will achieve the same result, but it will spare the lives of American soldiers deployed there.
If the U.S. is to stay in Syria, we must reshape our grand strategy and commit to a course change on how we fight the ideological war against militant Islam. Hunting down what’s left of the latest manifestation of the Sunni jihad — and traveling into the wilds of Syria to rebuild the country — is nothing more than a continuing exercise in whack-a-mole and a dangerous waste of time.