The United States never wanted to get involved in Syria. Barack Obama did everything in his power to avoid committing American troops to the muddled civil conflict, even at the cost of national prestige and his administration’s credibility. But while Obama dithered, chemical warfare again became the status quo of the battlefield, the greatest humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century unfolded, a human tide shattered the European political consensus, Russian and Iranian troops increasingly came into dangerous contact with NATO-allied forces, and a vicious terrorist network captured vast swaths of territory and brutalized thousands. It was only the threat of genocide and the prospect of the Iraqi state’s collapse that compelled Obama to confront his myopia. Though valuable time and tactical advantages were lost in the interim, Obama eventually learned that the world’s only superpower cannot sit idly by as local conflicts explode into regional crises.
Donald Trump inherited Barack Obama’s reluctant war against ISIS, but he also absorbed into the U.S. defense portfolio the broader unspoken mission in Syria: preventing great power conflict from breaking out in a war zone governed by competing states operating without delineated zones of control. Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, France, Britain, the United States, a variety of Middle Eastern nations, and their proxies are all executing military operations around Syria, shooting at one another in an extremely high-stakes contest that has next to nothing to do with containing Islamist terrorism.
That is not to say that the anti-terror mission in Syria is accomplished. The so-called Islamic State Caliphate maintains a stronghold in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and regularly exports terrorism to Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. As recently as late November, coalition forces “repelled a coordinated attack by ISIS elements near Deir ez-Zor. American forces conducted over 200 air and artillery strikes in Syria between December 8 and 15 alone.
Though the mission’s deputy commanding general insists that the estimated 2,000 ISIS forces operating in the area are “not enough” to make “significant or lasting gains,” the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria are poised to reconstitute their forces in rural and remote areas where they represent the only stabilizing sources of authority. “It will not be difficult for them to tap into a pool of human and material resources to fight against a vicious, deeply unpopular dictatorship controlled by an Iranian-backed minority sect,” wrote the author and analyst Hassan Hassan. That would be even more likely in America’s absence.
Russia, Iran, the rump Assad regime, and the Gulf Arab states have wildly varying definitions of what constitutes a “terrorist,” and they rarely align with those used in the West. ISIS’s existence even represents some instrumental utility for the murderous Syrian regime and its enablers insofar as the terrorist group allows the genocidal regime in Damascus to present itself to credulous Western audiences as the defender of civilization. That and a cold cost/benefit calculation is perhaps why the Assad regime spent so much of the civil war purchasing Syria’s oil back from ISIS-occupied fields while it prioritized the fight against secular rebel factions.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” the president tweeted on Wednesday, “my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” This cryptic self-affirmation came amid frantic leaked reports out of the Pentagon that Trump had ordered a full and swift withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria. It’s a promise he’s made before, but this feels different. The U.S. has reportedly begun informing its regional partners of imminent withdrawal, State Department personnel on the ground are heading for the exits, and the specificity of the reporting of events leading up to this decision suggests it’s real.
To say that this move makes almost no operational sense is an understatement. The fight against terrorist groups is ongoing. The struggle to secure a post-conflict order in Syria continues. It is entirely unclear how ceding Syria to Iran and its vassals will advance the Trump administration’s objective of containing Iranian influence in the region, nor will withdrawal make major terrorist events in the U.S. and Europe less likely. Even if the White House ends overt operations in Syria, its covert campaign targeting both state and non-state actors in that theater must continue lest the president undermine his own long-term strategic goals.
Political commentators and anti-interventionist ideologues will note that withdrawing America’s modest footprint from Syria is popular with the public. But what would you expect? Precisely no one in the political class is making a case for sustained and substantial American intervention in this conflict zone.
The cynicism of jaded spectators notwithstanding, America’s default position on conflicts abroad is non-intervention. Only when that position becomes untenable do we act—often, at times and places not of our choosing and following substantial losses. Equally frustrating is America’s penchant for lacking the resolve necessary to see military victory through to a sustainable political conclusion. That unfortunate history is repeating itself in the Levant.
Almost exactly seven years ago, another president executed another popular withdrawal of Americans soldiers from a fragile post-conflict country. Then as now, that country’s central government did not have total control over the whole nation and the political consensus necessary to preserve the peace did not exist, but none of that mattered at the time. There were campaign trail promises to fulfill. Less than three years later, American troops were back on the ground in Iraq expending precious blood and treasure to reclaim ground they’d held only months earlier. Conditions in Syria are far less stable than they were in Iraq when ISIS poured over the border, capturing ancient cities and routing Iraqi forces.
We may soon find ourselves back in Syria, too. And if history repeats, it will be when our hands are forced amid a terrible reckoning with the mistake we made today.