If you’re confused about what America’s military mission in Syria is, or whether the United States intends to see its ill-defined objectives achieved, don’t feel too bad. You are in good company. Even the president and his administration seem conflicted.
“We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon,” President Donald Trump revealed on March 27 in a speech in Ohio. “Let other people take care of it now.” That assertion probably came as a surprise to American defense officials. Only two months prior, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel had enlisted the world’s help in the urgent effort to rebuild the shattered portions of Syria recently liberated from ISIS control. “The coalition campaign is not over there,” Votel said. “We’re moving into, frankly, what I regard as the more challenging and more difficult part of the campaign.” Although the administration had recently withdrawn $200 million in rebuilding assistance for Syria, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters she was “unaware” of any plan to withdraw U.S. troops from that theater. Indeed, as recently as Monday, Pentagon officials were engaged in deliberations over whether to increase the U.S. troop presence on the ground in Northern and Eastern Syria.
The confusion did not end there. On Tuesday, President Trump reiterated his administration’s commitment to ensuring that “ISIS is gone” from Syria. When asked to elaborate, though, he insisted that the job was “almost completed” and restated his intention to withdraw U.S. soldiers from Syria as soon as possible (while resurrecting a campaign-trail proposal to have Saudi Arabia fund an extended American deployment). Simultaneously, just one mile away from the White House, Gen. Votel and State Department special envoy Brett McGurk were making a case for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria, as well as substantial reconstruction investments.
Today, Donald Trump’s administration tried to clean up the confusion. The White House revealed that Trump was convinced of the value of a short-term deployment in Syria. Reportedly, though, he “wasn’t thrilled about it.” The mission in Syria will be coming to a “rapid end,” according to the administration, but no timetable for a full troop withdrawal was revealed. The president has instructed the U.S. military to begin preparations for withdrawal from Syria at some point in the future, which may or may not occur depending on conditions on the ground.
In sum, this administration is of two minds on Syria, and that internal conflict looks increasingly like multiple personality disorder.
The fact is, when it comes to Syria, the mission against ISIS has become a secondary concern for military planners. Raqqa has fallen, the “caliphate” is dissolved, and the terrorist threat is scattered. America’s mission in Syria is now to fill a vacuum in a shattered state and to prevent the various great powers and their proxies vying to rule the rubble from accidentally triggering a broader war.
One year ago, a coalition spokesperson revealed that the U.S. was preparing to deploy Stryker Combat Vehicles to Syria’s northern border, not to combat terrorists, but to deter America’s Turkish allies from executing strikes on America’s Kurdish allies. Deterrence failed; Turkey’s airstrikes on U.S. proxies did not abate and, eventually, Turkish ground forces entered the conflict to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Last month, America’s adversaries in Damascus allowed U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters passage through regime-controlled territory to engage Turkish troops. At the same time, the regime targeted a U.S.-held position in another part of the country where it was joined by potentially hundreds of Russian contractors (most of which were neutralized by dug-in U.S. troops). Syria has become a cauldron of great powers, all shooting at one another and their proxies. Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and Britain have joined the U.S., Russia, and Turkey in executing military operations in and over Syria. Almost none of this has anything to do with Islamic terrorism and everything to do with the great zero-sum game between nation states seeking power and leverage over one another.
To abandon the territory east of the Euphrates would be to surrender strategic territory and vast oil resources to the Iranian-Russian axis. What’s more, there will be no guarantees that the territory America leaves behind will not host an ISIS resurgence or the revival of another militant Islamist organization. For years, the Assad regime and its allies looked the other way or actively supported the ISIS threat as it allowed them to claim that the Syrian civil war was a conflict between the defenders of civilization and Islamists rather than one between a brutal regime and the civilians it oppresses. Assad still needs a scapegoat, and groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates are ready to fill that role.
Because Donald Trump inherited a conflict that his predecessor had desperately hoped to avoid, there has never been a coherent strategy or narrowly defined objective for Syria. As a result, the U.S. approach to the conflict is entirely defensive and reactive. That isn’t President Trump’s fault, but nor has he approached the conflict realistically. Today, that likely means codifying Syria’s soft partition and establishing a power-sharing relationship among the nations with interests in preventing the country from collapsing entirely. That isn’t the cleanest solution to the conflict, but it might be a stable one.
It seems, though, that Trump is inclined to disregard material considerations like these. If Trump is unable to make the case to the public as to why America’s mission in Syria is vital, the nation will continue to be understandably skeptical of it. What’s more, Americans will likely welcome withdrawal from the Syrian theater. And when America is compelled to return under conditions far less optimal than they are even today, as was the case when the U.S. re-deployed to Iraq in 2014 after a short absence, the American public will think it an awful waste of lives and treasure. This terrible cycle of mistrust could end tomorrow if someone in the political class dared to make a case for why the U.S. is the only power capable of filling the vacuum in Syria and thereby preventing a broader asymmetric or even, terrifyingly, conventional conflict. But courage, it seems, is in short supply.