Good Riddance to America’s Syria Policy
As usual, Donald Trump has done the right thing in the wrong way.
President Donald Trump’s sudden decision Wednesday to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria has set off an all-too-predictable debate between those who believe he is abandoning the sacred mantle of U.S. global leadership and those who believe that Syria is not a vital interest and that U.S. power should be deployed elsewhere or preserved for future contingencies. Hard-line hawks such as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and neoconservatives such as Max Boot were quick to denounce Trump’s decision, along with other establishment figures (and Trump critics) such as former CIA Director John Brennan. By contrast, libertarians on the right and noninterventionists on the left have embraced the move, despite their deep aversion to Trump himself and their concerns about most of his other policies.
What’s really at stake in Syria? Is Trump following in former President Barack Obama’s footsteps (as David Sanger of the New York Times suggests), and continuing a “retreat” from America’s previous engagement in the region? Or has Trump simply ordered a prudent redeployment of a very small U.S. force, thereby ending an otherwise open-ended commitment whose strategic purpose was unclear? What broader lessons, if any, should be drawn from this latest episode?
For starters, this situation reminds us how stupid it was for the United States to have invaded Iraq back in 2003. Despite the recent (and richly deserved) demise of the pro-war Weekly Standard—the publication that consistently acted as a cheerleader for the campaign for war—there are a lot of unrepentant neoconservatives out there who still believe the solution to most global problems is the vigorous application of American power. But the war that the neocons dreamed up, lobbied for, and eventually sold to a gullible President George W. Bush is a big part of why the Middle East is so screwed up today. Had there been no Iraq War, there would have been no U.S. occupation, no anti-American insurgency, no “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” and therefore no Islamic State. Toppling Saddam Hussein also removed Iran’s main regional adversary and was thus a free gift to the clerical regime. Yet the strategic geniuses (including current U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton) who promoted this ill-fated scheme keep recycling new versions of the same policies today.
Second, we should be wary of the breathless rhetoric that is already being used to describe Trump’s decision. The Times’ headline (“A Strategy of Retreat”) is wholly misleading, as the orderly removal of a small U.S. force is hardly a Dunkirk-style evacuation or akin to Napoleon’s withdrawal from Moscow. Nor does it herald the end of the U.S. presence in the Middle East. After all, the United States still has over 40,000 soldiers, sailors, and air personnel in or around the region, and it still provides generous military aid and vast amounts of weaponry to its regional clients.
Third, it is equally misleading to talk about the United States “losing” Syria, because the country was never America’s to begin with. On the contrary, it has been a Soviet or Russian client state since the mid-1950s, which is of course why Moscow has worked hard to keep the Bashar al-Assad regime from falling. To say that Trump (or Obama before him) “lost” Syria implies that the United States once controlled its fate, or that it had a strategy for gaining control that had some reasonable prospect of success. But if we have learned nothing from the past 15 years, it is that the United States cannot control any of the countries in the Middle East and should not spend a lot of blood or treasure trying to do the impossible.
Fourth, it is worth remembering that prior to the Syrian uprising (and the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State), Washington never cared very much about who ran Syria and certainly didn’t see Syria’s internal politics as a vital U.S. concern. U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush did business with the Assad family when it was in the U.S. interest to do so, even though everyone knew it was a brutal dictatorship. Yet when the Arab Spring erupted, the Obama administration suddenly concluded that Syria’s internal politics mattered greatly and that “Assad must go,” even though they had no idea how to remove him or how to create a new government to replace his Alawite regime.
Fifth, many observers have been quick to see the redeployment as a loss for the United States and a big win for Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, or whomever, and to assume that some or all of these actors will quickly consolidate a lot of valuable influence in Syria. Maybe so, but Syria isn’t much of a prize at this point and may even be something of a liability. It was always a weak state, and its economy and infrastructure have been severely damaged by a punishing civil war. Instead of being a major strategic asset, Syria is more likely to turn into a costly quagmire for the supposed victors. The area remains a cauldron of competing political forces, and as the political scientist Mark Katz points out, their competing interests are likely to come to the fore once the United States withdraws. If so, then handing the Syrian quagmire off to others could be a net win for the United States.
Instead of obsessing about who is supposedly “winning” and who is supposedly “losing,” the United States should start by identifying its core strategic interests. When it comes to the Middle East, its main strategic interest is helping ensure that Middle East oil and gas continues to flow to world markets. (The United States gets very little energy from the region these days, but a sudden cutoff would damage the world economy and thus harm America as well.) This goal does not require the United States to control the region or dictate local political arrangements, however; it merely means helping prevent any other state from taking over the region. Fortunately, the region is as divided today as it has ever been, and the danger that any state (including Iran, Russia, China, or anyone else) will take over is vanishingly small. If that is the case, then staying in Syria contributes little to U.S. security or prosperity.
But hold on: What if the remnants of the Islamic State manage to reconstitute themselves, regain some territory, and sponsor new terrorist attacks abroad? Such a development is obviously undesirable, but the danger does not justify keeping U.S. troops in Syria for another one, two, or five years. The ideology of a group like the Islamic State is not eradicated by bombs, drones, artillery shells, or bullets, and the idea of violent resistance can live on even if every member alive today is killed or captured. The ultimate protection against such groups is not an open-ended American commitment but rather the creation of effective local governments and institutions. Legitimate and effective local authority is not something the United States can provide, however; its presence in such places may even be counterproductive. After all, the Islamic State’s ideological message rests in part on opposition to foreign interference, and it has long used the U.S. presence in the region as a recruiting tool. Getting out of Syria won’t neutralize that message right away, but it could make the group less persuasive over time.
Moreover, despite its fearsome image and the hype its brutal tactics have received, the Islamic State was never an existential threat to the United States. It did sponsor or inspire a number of lethal attacks in the United States and in Europe, but the actual risk it posed to the country was negligible. To be specific, attacks directed or inspired by the Islamic State have killed 64 Americans (out of a population of roughly 325 million) and roughly 350 Europeans (out of a population of more than 500 million). These deaths are deeply regrettable, but the danger does not rise to the level of an existential threat and in fact pales in comparison to more prosaic sources of harm.
A more legitimate concern is the fate of Kurdish militias that have been vital partners in the anti-Islamic State campaign. Trump’s critics rightly point out that his decision in effect abandons the Kurds, and I have some sympathy for this view. But America’s moral obligation to the Kurds is not unlimited, and—rightly or wrongly—the long-term consequences for the United States are unlikely to be significant. The Kurds were not fighting the Islamic State in order to do Uncle Sam a favor; they did it out of their own self-interest. Welcome to the brutal world of international politics: Nations and states cooperate when their interests align, but cooperation often ceases once interests diverge.
For this reason, withdrawing from Syria will not make other states more reluctant to cooperate with the United States in the future. They will still welcome U.S. support when they understand that it is in America’s interest to help them, and they will (rightly) have doubts about working with the United States when they suspect its interests do not align with theirs. Nor is it clear to me how keeping 2,000 troops in Syria was going to guarantee Kurdish security over the long term, let alone facilitate the Kurdish dream of their own state.
In calling an end to our involvement in Syria, therefore, Trump did the right thing. (In case any of you are wondering, I found it hard to type that sentence.) But true to form, he has done it in the worst possible way. There seems to have been no advance warning or interagency preparation for the decision, which means that the timing, arrangements, and broader implications have not been gamed out in advance. (It is therefore no surprise that the decision on Syria was soon followed by the announcement that Secretary of Defense James Mattis would be retiring in February). As is typical for him, Trump did not consult with U.S. allies or inform them in advance. Nor did he make any serious effort to use the U.S. presence in Syria to orchestrate a diplomatic process to stabilize the country or use the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal to elicit parallel concessions from others. Like his phony nuclear summit with Kim Jong Un or his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Trump was once again demonstrating the “art of the giveaway”: making unilateral U.S. concessions and getting nothing in return.
Finally, the decision reveals that Trump’s approach to the Middle East possesses neither consistency nor a coherent strategic logic. In addition to doubling down on America’s “special relationships” with Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (thereby encouraging each of these governments to misbehave in various ways), Trump, Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed to put “maximum pressure” on Iran. Whatever one thinks of this policy—and I happen to believe it is deeply mistaken—his latest decision is clearly at odds with it. Over time, such twists, turns, and inconsistencies can only fuel the suspicion that Trump really doesn’t give a damn about what is good for the country (or the world) and is motivated solely by whatever might salvage his diminishing political fortunes.
Even when he does the right thing, in short, Trump manages to maximize the costs and minimize the benefits. But at this point in his presidency, that should no longer be much of a surprise.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.