President Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, if it holds, is one of the few genuinely courageous acts of his presidency…
My first thought when I heard that President Trump was finally taking our troops out of the quagmire called Syria was that he was not really serious. Given how frequently and unpredictably this President can change his mind, it seems fair to doubt that our troops will ever really leave Syria. But I will keep my skepticism in abeyance—and my fingers crossed—in order to write a plausible defense for President Trump’s decision.
But before doing so, it is only right to admit that his decision is justifiably criticized for at least three valid reasons. First is the manner in which he vetted and then announced his decision. Actually, it seems he hardly vetted it at all, simply tweeting his decision without having ever requested advice or input from his closest aides or the Congress. Apparently, his base likes that sort of shooting from the hip policy-making, but it needlessly unnerves many moderate voters and makes many of President Trump’s congressional supporters convinced that he can never be relied upon. No doubtPresident Trump would argue that there was no point in seeking guidance or providing advanced warning because he already knew what each of them would say. Nonetheless, it is rarely a good thing to blindside your own staff and your own political party.
Second, what applies domestically applies even more acutely internationally. This decision apparently was never discussed with even our closest allies, the UK and Israel, let alone the Kurds who have been heroic in helping us battle ISIS. Of course, our repeated betrayal of the Kurds dates back at least to 1988, when we failed to rescue them from Saddam Hussein’s criminal gas attacks. Saddam was, after all, our ally at that time. Then, as the First Gulf War came to a close, we urged an uprising against Saddam, which the Kurds (and Shia) fatefully commenced. The Kurds ought not be surprised, therefore, to discover yet again that we are not going to risk alienating Turkey or upsetting the fragile national borders that define the Middle East just because they have fought side-by-side with us for so long.
Third, and perhaps most damning, the President fails to say what everyone knows: our departure from Syria will, at least in the short run, cause more death and destruction. This is not something that can be denied or whitewashed. Our withdrawal will precipitate greater violence and destruction for the next year or two, although ultimately it will allow for greater stability.
None of these concerns—blindsiding his advisors, ignoring our allies, causing further short-term bloodshed—seems to matter to President Trump because, as he put it so succinctly, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Well, no. At least, not exactly: ISIS is still there and still a threat, albeit a greatly diminished one. But in his defense, President Trump is closer to the truth than most of his critics regarding ISIS. That is, his critics make a facile but false analogy to what happened in the wake of former President Obama’s precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in order to condemn President Trump unfairly for repeating this same mistake in Syria. But even someone with only a superficial understanding of what occurred in Iraq and what is happening today in Syria can readily see the huge differences in the two situations. When Obama withdrew our troops from Iraq, ISIS was already growing into a formidable adversary and better intel analysis would have confirmed that fact. In Syria, however, it is quite the opposite: ISIS is indeed crumbling and no longer has the structure or mass support among the people that it once did. But far more important than this difference is the obvious, but conveniently overlooked, reality that when we left Iraq, that country was all on its own and it was still struggling to gain its bearings as a fledgling new state. That is not the case in Syria, where the Russians retain a large presence and their ally President Bashar al-Assad is gaining momentum, not losing it.
Many analysts who prefer to react reflexively rather than reflectively insist that we should not want Russia dabbling in the Middle East—but why not? If Russia squanders its blood and treasure on stabilizing Syria, how does that tangibly cost us anything? Those made wary by President Trump’s decision of growing Russian influence in that region need to finally concede that Russia is not the Soviet Union and poses no existential threat to our interests in the region or anywhere in the world. Former President Obama was far closer to understanding the realities of the Syria problem when in 2015 he warned that the Russians would soon realize the frustrations and dangers of meddling far from home. There will certainly be such frustrations and Russian troops will die, but eventually Russia will ensure President Assad’s victory and that, in the long run, will bring more stability to Syria and eventually less suffering to the Syrian people. ISIS will be defeated once and for all, but that is best left to others. What is needed now is a protracted and painful mopping up exercise, and the ruthless Syrian Army with its Russian support is far more capable of that than our Kurdish allies and our special ops forces.
When the neocons who feign concern for the Syrian people, and unrealistic idealistic Senators like Graham and Corker, complain about leaving Syria before the job is done, they are being deceitful, perhaps even to themselves. As matters stand right now in Syria, we have no exit strategy, not even a vague time horizon for leaving. As in Afghanistan, we have set ourselves up for a decades-long occupation with no final victory in sight. In fact, our presence in Syria prolongs the stalemate indefinitely, with no side being able to crush the others and reunite Syria. (One can imagine a similar scenario in the early 1860s with the European Powers providing economic assistance to the Southern states and even eventually sending thousands of troops for humanitarian reasons to prevent the brutal, wholesale destruction by Sherman’s troops. The Civil War would have dragged on for years, as the South would not win independence, yet neither would the North succeed in reunifying the country.) The continued partition of Syria benefits only one player in the region and that player is Israel. A fragmented Syria, including a smaller but still viable ISIS, is what Israel—or at least the ruling Likud party—seeks to ensure indefinitely. But that is not what is best for American security interests. What is best for us is a united, stable Syria, with ISIS totally vanquished. That future, although I find it morally repugnant to endorse it, will only come into being if President Assad wins.
President Trump’s decision, if it holds, is one of the few genuinely courageous acts of his presidency. As a matter of domestic politics, leaving a couple of thousand troops in Syria is far easier than bringing them home. Few Americans ever complain about our getting involved in overseas adventures until and unless Americans start dying in significant numbers. That President Trump took this decision is remarkable and deserving of praise, even if he did it in a poorly orchestrated manner while offering a palpably wrong justification—that ISIS has already been completely annihilated. T.S. Eliot’s famous admonition comes to mind: The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason. But at least in this context, the great poet was mistaken. The greatest treason is not to do the right thing for the wrong reason: It is to continue to do the wrong thing for seemingly good reasons because we lack the courage to acknowledge that our humanitarian motivations ultimately do much greater harm than good. No civilized nation wants to see further violence and suffering in Syria, but our continued military presence is not the answer. The right reason to withdraw our troops from Syria is simply this: We cannot police the entire world and we should not allow our troops to fight unendingly in open-ended conflicts. We need to stop misusing our military in conflicts in which we have no clearly defined objectives that we can reasonably hope to achieve in an acceptable period of time.
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