Just over one year ago, President-elect Donald Trump stood alongside his choice for defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis and outlined his philosophy on what constitutes the appropriate use of the U.S. armed forces. Trump promised an end to the decades of “intervention and chaos” and vowed to rebuild the military “because we’re all over the place fighting in areas that we shouldn’t be fighting in.” It was the kind of boilerplate noninterventionist rhetoric to which Trump had appealed throughout the campaign, but it was never realistic. Trump inherited America’s intractable post-9/11 commitments abroad as well as the public weariness that accompanies them. The administration has found a novel way to navigate this dilemma: maintain America’s troop commitments overseas, and perhaps even expand them, but keep the public in the dark about the details.
Yahoo News reporter Olivier Knox noted this week that the White House’s semi-annual tally of U.S. troops stationed abroad in potential or active war zones was missing a few key details. Most notable, the report lacked a specific accounting of the number of troops stationed in some of the most dangerous theaters overseas. In the last six months, for example, the U.S. has deployed U.S. advisors to places like Lebanon, Yemen, and the Philippines. Yet while the Pentagon was explicit about the number of soldiers advising the government on counter-terrorism in Lebanon (100), it was unclear how many soldiers were deployed to Yemen and the Philippines. Most disturbing, the force levels in the three theaters in which the United States remains engaged in critical anti-terrorism operations—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—were not specified.
When it comes to troop levels overseas, Knox noted that the Pentagon had been more forthcoming than the White House. In early December, the Defense Department revealed that the approximately 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would soon be augmented by an additional 3,000 to 4,000 deployments. In Iraq, 5,200 U.S. service personnel are advising Baghdad’s anti-terrorism campaign. But most critically for those concerned about both mission creep and the legality of American deployments abroad, the Pentagon revealed that about 2,000 American soldiers were now on the ground in Syria. “The latter marked a notable increase from the previously disclosed figure of 500,” Knox noted.
In some ways, this revelation should not come as a surprise. In March, as the Trump administration was coming to terms with the world as it is, Trump quietly approved of the first deployment of 400 U.S. Marines to Syria—augmenting Barack Obama’s deployments. But these deployments were not made public, as had been standard practice. They were only publicly acknowledged when America’s commander in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, was asked by a House Armed Services Committee about whether there were additional troops in Syria other than those that had been previously disclosed. “They have deployed,” Votel confirmed.
The Pentagon insists that the president wants to withhold the number of American forces overseas in order to deprive the enemy of that information. Trump, however, seems interested in keeping force-deployment numbers a secret from both ISIS and Congress. That is doubly clear now. The American mission in Syria is no longer what it was in the spring of 2017.
In late March, Mattis told reporters that a U.S. Central Command proposal to send an additional 1,000 American soldiers to Syria in preparation for the forthcoming assault on the ISIS-held city of Raqqa was getting serious consideration. They would join what was only described at the time as “a couple hundred” U.S. forces on the ground in that country, along with a handful of soldiers operating Stryker Combat Vehicles along the Turkish border. Those deployments were not aimed at combating ISIS but at deterring America’s Turkish allies from executing airstrikes on American-backed Kurdish proxy forces. This was the reveal that America was going to be in Syria for a very long time; these conflicts would only intensify after the ISIS threat had been wiped away. Last week, the Pentagon made that implicit reality explicit.
“We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon. He specified that America’s presence in the country would be “conditions-based,” meaning that there will be no artificial timetables set for withdrawal. From a tactical perspective, that’s competent planning. Politically, though, the American mission to Syria may become a stain on the national character.
To be clear, deployments to Syria are both morally and strategically justified. The presence of ISIS in Syria and the regime in Damascus are both threats to American grand strategy and national security. But there has been no effort by Congress to authorize these deployments. Apologists will insist that authorization is unnecessary because a 16-year-old congressional resolution covers anti-ISIS missions, but America’s military mission in Syria is not limited to ISIS. On several occasions, American and Syrian forces have come into contact. Donald Trump has even ordered cruise-missile strikes on Syrian government targets while American troops were occupying strategic territory inside Syria. By any reasonable definition, these actions amount to a war against a sovereign power. The White House appears committed to doing all within its power to avoid confronting that reality, but it is as inescapable as it is politically inconvenient.
The American public deserves a fuller accounting of the nature and scope of its commitments in Syria. Trump is disinclined to provide it and the public doesn’t appear to care, so representatives in Congress have looked the other way. A post-war arrangement between the myriad great powers and competing interests inside Syria after the ISIS threat recedes will undoubtedly leave a U.S. presence there for the foreseeable future. That’s how military commitments become politically nebulous, self-justifying, and intractable, and it is happening again right before our eyes.