400 American Troops Can’t Do Anything

If the president wants to withdraw from Syria, he might as well just withdraw.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the U.S. military during a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, on Dec. 27, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet members of the U.S. military during a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, on Dec. 27, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?

If I go, there will be trouble.
And if I stay it will be double.

Mick Jones’s plaintive cry of confusion, pain, and indecision is the never-ending loop set against Washington’s excruciating debate about Syria. Beginning this past December, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the United States was leaving Syria immediately, in a matter of weeks. As it turns out, U.S. forces are not leaving quite as quickly as the president envisioned. Although he assured soldiers during a visit to Iraq that there would be a complete withdrawal from Syria, the Trump administration recently announced that a residual force of 400 personnel would remain.

Trump’s decision is reminiscent of nothing so much as former President Barack Obama’s split-the-difference approach to problem-solving. It is a method that is primarily aimed at resolving domestic irritations. The envisioned force in this case is small enough to be politically palatable to the president’s supporters who want to leave Syria, but apparently big enough that supporters of staying are satisfied.

This approach’s utility when solving problems in Syria is far more questionable—in large part because there’s no agreement on which problems to solve. The foreign-policy community in Washington seems to think almost anything and everything in Syria is important enough to require the continued deployment of U.S. forces. But the result is a half-assed and potentially permanent deployment that may not be capable of accomplishing anything at all.

Trump’s new Syria policy fails at the basic task of coordinating means and ends and aligning its ends with U.S. interests. First and foremost, the continued American deployment in Syria is intended to prevent the return of the Islamic State. Having U.S. troops in Syria will no doubt make it harder for Islamic State fighters to regroup and carry out attacks. Almost everyone agrees, however, that the Islamic State will live on in some form or another to fight elsewhere—Libya, Europe, the Sinai Peninsula, the Sahel, or even Syria.

Under these circumstances, it is entirely unclear why or how 400 soldiers will make a difference countering the overall phenomenon that is the Islamic State. In addition, for all of the attention devoted to the Islamic State in Syria, there is greater risk associated with other extremist groups in the country, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that have more capability and more local support. Supporters of a prolonged deployment in Syria do not seem concerned about this group.

Second, the Americans will be in Syria to protect Washington’s Kurdish allies. On a moral level, there are good reasons to do this, given that they have been the primary (and most effective) foot soldiers in the fight against the Islamic State. The remaining Americans—and possibly Europeans—are supposed to deter the Turks from trying to destroy the Syrian Kurdish forces. The Turkish government argues that this group—the People’s Protection Units, known by the acronym YPG—are terrorists, directly connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting Turkey for decades. It is important to note that the presence of Americans in northeast Syria did not deter Turkey from taking over Afrin and driving the YPG from the area in early 2018. Also, the Trump administration has likely so damaged its ties with the Syrian Kurds that no matter how many soldiers Washington deploys, Kurdish leaders cannot trust the United States. After all, it seems that on matters related to Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been successful in influencing Trump’s thinking where U.S. officials have not.

Another reason offered for the continued deployment of American soldiers in Syria is to gain leverage with the Russians. Allegedly, this small force will compel the Russians to negotiate with the United States over the future of Syria. Yet none of the Trump administration’s goals—notably, a Syrian future without Bashar al-Assad—are realistic. The Russians and Iranians oppose it, as does the Syrian government, which is now convinced of its inevitable victory. Some Arab states have begun normalizing ties with Syria, and even European analysts have come to the conclusion that dealing with Assad is unavoidable. So U.S. forces are being put in harm’s way in the service of a policy that has no chance of succeeding, which makes the United States look weak. This is the exact opposite of what this military deployment is supposed to do.

Finally, the U.S. forces left in Syria are supposed to be part of a broad effort to counter the Iranians in the Middle East and prevent them from establishing a permanent base to threaten Israel. These goals are consistent with U.S. interests, but the deployment raises several unresolved issues. The presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, increased Iranian intelligence capabilities, and weapons manufacturing is a threat to Israeli security, but it is unclear what 400 U.S. personnel will do to deter these activities. The Iranians will not want to challenge the United States militarily, but nothing prevents them from steering clear of the Americans and carrying on with their activities. Deterring Iran—as the Israelis have been doing in Syria—makes sense, but what the Trump administration is proposing is nonsensical.

Although the administration has tried to sound decisive and the president’s supporters have called the plan to leave 400 soldiers there “brilliant,” the policy is shot through with the hesitancy that has characterized the U.S. approach to Syria from the start. Policymakers have been unsure what they can do to fix the problem without getting U.S. soldiers stuck in someone else’s civil war, but they nevertheless have felt compelled to do something, anything, because that is what the United States does and has always done. It’s time for a new approach. Or as Mick Jones put it:

This indecision’s bugging me 
If you don’t want me, set me free
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be…

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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