Why Trump is Right to Pull American Troops from Syria
by Dr. Christopher Zambakari
On December 19, 2018, President Donald Trump called for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Syrian civil war, declaring on Twitter: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.” This decision was in line with his campaign promise to bring American forces home from a messy and prolonged entanglement in the Middle East. Nonetheless, it set off a flurry of responses, beginning with General James Mattis’ subsequent resignation as Secretary of Defense.
The Washington establishment reacted to these announcements in a typical fashion, condemning Trump’s decision and expressing shock over Mattis’ resignation. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) declared: “This is scary. Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.” Senator Lindsay Graham called the decision an “Obama-like mistake” and a “big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad…and Russia.” Scholars from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Center for a New American Security echoed that sentiment.
The context in which Trump’s decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and approximately 7,000 troops from Afghanistan must be remembered. The Syrian conflict has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead civilians. More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country and another 6.2 million are internally displaced persons. The Costs of War Project has estimated the costs of the post-September 11 U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the related violence in Pakistan and Syria, at USD 5.9 trillion. At least 6,950 U.S. and 1,465 allied soldiers have died in these wars. So, how should we make sense of Trump’s announcement, as well as the resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis? I argue that both decisions should be welcomed. Trump’s persistence to honor his electoral mandate against an establishment that never says no to war is rather admirable. There is no better time to say no to perpetual war.
Trump is correct in recognizing that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been degraded in Syria and has lost most of what its caliphate held, and the Pentagon Inspector General has confirmed this fact. U.S. troops were there to fight ISIS, not Assad, and this has been achieved.
Trump did not start the war in Syria. Rather, he campaigned on a platform that called for ending U.S. engagement there. President Barack Obama made this same promise, but he never honored it. Obama’s favored “Assad must go” approach—characterized by support for the Syrian National Council, arming proxy groups on the ground, and a covert program run by the CIA to topple the Assad regime—resulted in the militarization and increased sectarianism of Syria, as well as in total failure. The assumption was that limited engagement would remove Assad. But, without a coherent political strategy of what would replace the Assad regime, the Obama administration never learned the lessons and dangers of regime change experienced by previous administrations. The difference between Assad, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya is that, unlike the latter two, Assad enjoys serious external military support, which was further illustrated when Russia directly intervened to counter rebel forces.
Many of the contemporary international challenges—including the fate of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe; U.S. confrontations with Russia and China; instability in the Middle East; the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and conducting the global war on terror in seventy-six countries—were well underway before Trump moved into the White House. The many projects undertaken by the United States around the world, including nation building and subsidizing numerous wealthy allies, has resulted in the United States spending more on defense than the next seven highest-spending countries combined.
Most analysts in Washington fail to acknowledge that the problems that confronted Obama and now confront Trump can’t be fixed militarily through the U.S.-favored strategy of “surgical” strikes and the low-risk and low-cost solutions championed by the Washington establishment. Trump has inherited this situation and called for one of the United States’ greatest footprints in the Middle East to end. The policy establishment alarm bells over these decisions should be understood in the framework of an establishment that favors forceful U.S. engagement around the world, even when that produces less-desirable outcomes.
No one embodied this policy more than General Mattis. Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran, pointed out that Mattis was “a representative of the national security establishment” and that Trump could not change U.S. foreign policy in the region when people like Mattis were in his national security cabinet.
Trump is right in declaring that the United States “should not be the policeman for the Middle East.” The somber reality is that the political environment in the Middle East is crowded with regional players: a rising and hostile Iran, a resurgent and scornful Russia, and a fearful and aggressive Saudi Arabia. The United States cannot rely on politics by the barrel of the gun to stabilize and influence the region. No opposition military victory in Syria is possible without the substantial deployment and long-term commitment of many more American troops to Syria and a major change in their mission.
Three essentials are required for any forward hope considering Syria’s transition, which are the inclusion of all key stakeholders, the participation of the population through popular consultation, and a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of the conflict. A rational approach requires a painful acknowledgment that a new Syria will include the active participation of the current regime and its backers, including Iran and Russia.
The trillions of dollars that the United States spends in failed nation-building projects in the Middle East could be spend at home strengthening our armed forces, rebuilding our delipidated infrastructure and educational system, addressing growing inequality exacerbated by the financing of these wars, and focusing America’s might on major geostrategic issues such as managing the rise of Asian powers, climate change, and immigration—issues that demand America’s indispensable energy. The United States must therefore reprioritize its resources on major issues rather than focusing on minor distractions.
Image: Return to Homs
Courtesy of Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 / Flickr
Christopher Zambakari is a Doctor of Law and Policy, the Chief Executive Officer of The Zambakari Advisory, L.L.C, Hartley B. and Ruth B. Barker Endowed Rotary Peace Fellow, and the Assistant Editor of The Bulletin of the Sudan Studies Association.
His area of research and expertise is international law and security, political reform and economic development, governance and democracy, conflict management and prevention, nation and state-building processes in Africa and in the Middle East. His work has been published in law, economic, and public policy journals.