The United States Can’t Have It All
The debacle over Syria shows that neither party understands the country’s real goals in the Middle East—or what it would take to achieve them.
The disaster that has played out in northeast Syria over the past several weeks shows what can happen when the worst impulses in U.S. foreign policy collide. The United States wants to wash its hands of the world without consequence, leaving foreigners to fight out their timeless tribal rivalries over bloody patches of sand. But it also wants to stretch out the U.S. unipolar moment forever, displaying American resolve by permanently preventing the Syrian government from retaking all of Syria. If Washington cannot figure out a better way to negotiate between these competing desires, the coming decade could see a string of similar failures.
Many commentators have already condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s reckless decision in October to withdraw from northern Syria so suddenly. Other commentators, in turn, have highlighted the role of officials who, believing the United States could stay indefinitely, refused to plan a responsible departure before it was too late. Both criticisms are well-deserved. In fact, a majority of policymakers and pundits already seem to believe that the United States should steer a responsible course between the easy-to-parody excesses of both isolationism and interventionism. The problem is that in practice, the so-called responsible course is often nothing so much as a rhetorical desire to have it all. The risk, as shown in Syria, remains that in refusing to either cut down on commitments or honor them, the United States will end up with the worst of both worlds.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, op-ed writers and beltway thinkers have been insisting that observers shouldn’t treat Trump’s Middle East policy as an aberration. Obama, readers have been repeatedly reminded, also called for the United States to disengage from the region, and even used some of the same tropes about timeless conflicts to do so. Ending America’s “endless wars” has been a popular talking point for the Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election as well. And what’s more, public opinion is less hostile to Trump’s Syria decision than the immediate media reaction suggested. One recent poll showed a majority of U.S. citizens either supported the president or simply didn’t care.
But the course of U.S. Syria policy over the past several years shows how difficult it can be for policymakers to truly come to terms with the limits imposed by changing domestic political realities. While think tank reports and policy papers continue to earnestly advocate that Washington pursue a “better alignment of ends and means,” this all too often results in proposals that keep the ends consistent as the means become more meager.
Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, there has always been a mismatch in U.S. policy between maximalist ambitions and minimalist resources. Over time, as that disconnect became more acute, stated U.S. objectives lost importance and policymakers projected whatever they wanted on to U.S. policy, oftentimes with divergent camps advancing irreconcilable goals. In the absence of a broader strategy that shared consensus throughout the bureaucracy, tactical approaches quickly became conflated with increasingly grand strategic outcomes.
When Washington began supporting Syrian Kurdish forces, U.S. officials repeatedly described the U.S. relationship with the group as a “temporary, transactional, and tactical”—one aimed purely at defeating the Islamic State. Yet as the Islamic State’s territory crumbled, some in Washington saw advancing the Kurdish cause as a goal in and of itself, while others began envisioning a new role for Syrian Kurdish forces, the People’s Protection Unites (YPG), as a means to contain Iran and put pressure on the Assad regime in Syria. What’s more, when U.S.-backed forces ended up in possession of nearly a third of Syria, abandoning a territory that Washington never explicitly set out to control began to look like a concession to U.S. enemies.
But the expanding scope of U.S. goals also helped create new enemies. Turkey had been angry about U.S. support for the YPG from the outset, but as the relationship continued and went beyond its original focus on the Islamic State, Turkish suspicions and hostility deepened. In January 2018, when the United States announced a 30,000-strong border force made up of former fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces—which is predominantly composed of YPG forces—to stabilize Syria’s eastern border, Turkey upped the pressure by invading the town of Afrin. As Ankara’s desire to violently disrupt the YPG’s political project intensified, preventing a Turkish attack became yet another reason the United States was forced to stay. And staying, of course, made Washington even more committed to the Syrian Democratic Forces. In short, as the United States took on ever greater commitments, it generated ever greater resistance from regional actors. This raised the likelihood that the entire policy would collapse—and also raised the stakes when it did.
Still, when the U.S. president first tried to pull the rug out from under this policy, it appeared more responsible to reinforce it than to recalibrate. After Trump announced his plans for a troop withdrawal from Syria last December, the impulse among the bureaucracy was to remove just enough to placate the president without altering U.S. commitments on the ground. The end result was a policy that demanded as much or even more from U.S. troops than before, but with even fewer of them.
Not surprisingly, this gambit didn’t work—either on the ground, or eventually with Trump himself. While U.S. policymakers continued to operate business as usual, regional actors did in fact question Washington’s resolve. They saw the withdrawal, even a limited one, as an indication that the country would not stay invested in the long term and so could pressure it into leaving. Knowing Trump wanted to get out, Ankara simply kept pushing toward its ultimate objective: ending U.S.-YPG cooperation and undermining the Kurds’ bid for autonomy. Without the president’s support, there was no way for diplomats to respond to this pressure. Washington’s threats proved unconvincing and its concessions inadequate.
In the end, the interplay of Trump’s recklessness and others’ attempts to ignore it secured a uniquely damaging outcome. Remarkably, Washington created a situation where Russia and the Syrian regime retaking territory they had dominated for decades became an embarrassing blow to U.S. credibility. Worse, this still appeared preferable to the same territory falling under the control of the a nominal U.S. ally, Turkey.
Drawing a workable lesson from this disaster requires everyone in Washington to step back from the debate over who was to blame. In Syria, a policy of wanting to have it both ways failed, while obfuscating whether it was Washington’s ambitions or its withdrawal that created the failure. As a result, the ensuing crisis has simply provided further fodder for those who see the fundamental error of U.S. foreign policy exclusively in terms of either isolationism or knee-jerk interventionism.
Charting a realistic course requires people on both poles of the debate to recognize that coherence and consistency must be goals in themselves. It also requires policymakers who are naturally inclined to split the difference to do so in a clear and constructive way. That means accepting trade-offs about U.S. interests and making, rather than dodging, decisions about the country’s international commitments. More broadly, it means recognizing both the value and limits of American might—and articulating more clearly when and how to harness it.
Nicholas Danforth is Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP.