Having failed to overthrow the government there, we’re now penalizing the civilian population for our failure. Enough is enough.
Daniel Larison / The American Conservative
(September 1, 2020) — Why are there still thousands of American troops in Syria? The government offers up an official counter-terrorism justification for maintaining an illegal military presence in the country, and the president will sometimes talk about “keeping the oil” there, but the real answer is that no one with any authority or influence in Washington wants to bring them home. The usual mix of inertia, cowardice, and ideology that defines so many of our foreign policy debates also creates perverse incentives for politicians in both parties to defend an illegal, unauthorized mission that has nothing to do with American security.
US troops are in harm’s way in Syria, and they are occasionally engaged in hostilities with pro-regime forces. Four American soldiers were injured in a collision last Wednesday between their armored vehicle and a Russian one. That was just the latest in a string of clashes between US forces and Syrian and Russian government forces that has been going on for months. Last month, a group of American troops came under fire from Syrian government forces.
The Syrians claim that a US helicopter had attacked a Syrian government outpost and killed one of their soldiers. There was a bigger clash in February of this year that also resulted in at least one Syrian fatality. These have all been minor incidents, but they show how potentially dangerous it is to keep these troops there.
The longer those troops remain in a country where they aren’t wanted, the more likely it is that some of them will end up getting seriously injured or killed. That would be a senseless waste of lives, and could trigger a larger conflict that could claim many more. Even if the US avoids the worst-case scenario of a new war, there is still no good reason for American troops to be in Syria. All of them need to be pulled out as soon as possible.
The mission is small enough that it usually goes unnoticed by the public, and almost everyone in the government is happy to let it stay that way. Congress never authorized it, and US forces are in Syria without the permission of the government in Damascus. American troops are illegally operating in a country whose government the US isn’t formally at war with and has no discernible connection to protecting the United States or any of our treaty allies. They have no business being there, and the government’s excuses are a weak attempt to hide this embarrassing reality.
Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, made this point shortly after the most recent incident: “Playing bumper cars with Russians in the Levant serves no vital US national interest. Neither counter-terrorism raids nor confiscating Syrian oil is a valid reason to maintain this mission.”
The mission in Syria is exposing US forces to unnecessary risk for no legitimate purpose, but as far as most of the foreign policy establishment and our elected officials are concerned, it is just one more unquestionable commitment that cannot be ended. It is therefore a perfect example of US foreign policy dysfunction: an open-ended, militarized mission with no well-defined goal that almost everyone supports by default.
Despite announcing that the US would withdraw from Syria on two different occasions, the president has never followed through. Some troops have been moved to other parts of Syria, and some have been shifted to other parts of the region, but full withdrawal has never happened. Trump boasts that “our troops are coming home,” as he did in his convention speech last week, but they never do.
The Iran hawks in his administration and his party have fought to keep a military presence in Syria to deny territory to the Syrian government, and Trump evidently agrees with them. Meanwhile, most members of Congress show interest in the mission in Syria only when there is a possibility that the US might actually withdraw, and do whatever they can to delay or block that outcome.
Trump’s election opponent is unfortunately no better on this question. Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Anthony Blinken, has made it clear that a Biden administration would continue a military presence in Syria indefinitely to create “leverage” with the Syrian government. The standard Democratic line on Trump’s would-be withdrawal has been to condemn it rather than to criticize the president for failing to get everyone out.
Many Democrats in Congress have rightly been willing to challenge the president on war powers when it comes to the atrocious war on Yemen, but on Syria, most of them have taken the opposite position, throwing up roadblocks to an American exit from a country where our forces should never have been. Some of this can be explained by partisanship and opportunism, but it is also driven by the same misguided belief in American “leadership” that put us in this position in the first place.
While US troops keep running into their counterparts from the Syrian government and its allies, we need to remember that the Trump administration has also been waging a different kind of war on the Syrian people with sweeping economic sanctions. This is already having the intended effect of strangling the Syrian economy and sabotaging reconstruction efforts. If the regime’s slogan was “Assad or we burn the country,” US policy could be summed up as “Get rid of Assad or we will starve the country.” The sanctions will not force Assad and his allies from power, but they will make millions of people poorer and they will cause many of them to starve or to flee.
Andrew Bacevich recently commented on our government’s senseless policy in Syria: “So instead of a realistic policy defined by clear national interests, the United States drifts toward a confrontation with Russia in a place that virtually no American believes is worth dying for.” This “drift” is what happens when US foreign policy operates as if on autopilot. Instead of deploying troops somewhere to achieve a specific end to advance an American interest, our policymakers come to see the deployments as ends in themselves.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether the deployment serves a clear purpose or whether it is a wise use of resources. It evidently doesn’t matter whether it’s legal. Once the US sends troops somewhere, it usually takes extraordinary effort to extract them later, and that has no effect on subsequent decisions to deploy them in new countries.
Added carelessly, new commitments that the US didn’t have to make are then reimagined in Washington as vitally important. Countries where American troops had never set foot until a few years ago are suddenly crucial “prizes” that the US must not “lose.”
Because the US defines its interests so expansively and keeps adding commitments all the time while shedding few or none, it is always “drifting” into confrontations because it refuses to restrain itself and impose limits on its foreign policy ambitions. The US presence in Syria embodies so much of what ails our foreign policy as a whole, and we are never going to reform our foreign policy until our policymakers learn how to steer clear of such entanglements.
American policy in Syria over the last decade has been marked by ill-considered and destructive interference by our government. From Obama’s reckless declaration that Assad “must go” to arming insurgents to Trump’s illegal attacks to the current policy of occupation and economic war, the US has meddled where it should have stayed out.
The bias in favor of “action” in our foreign policy debates has led the last two administrations into a dead-end policy in which there are only costs and no benefits for the United States. Having failed to overthrow the Syrian government, the US is now penalizing the civilian population for that failure.
Occupying Syrian territory indefinitely has nothing to do with defending the United States, and American soldiers should not be put at risk for the sake of such a pointless mission. Rather than strangling the Syrian people with sanctions and violating Syria’s sovereignty, the US should be aiding in the reconstruction and relief effort in order to help stabilize the country and the surrounding region. Above all, we need political leaders who understand that Syria is not and never was ours to “lose” and that there is nothing to be “won” by continuing to torment its population with sanctions.
Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA
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