The US has nothing left to gain in Syria — but much to lose

The Hill |  DANIEL DEPETRIS: If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought that President Donald Trump’s strong desire to pull the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria was the beginning of a full-scale regional Armageddon of unprecedented proportions. The reaction from the foreign policy establishment on the op-ed pages has been outright panic and disbelief. Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal “a strategic victory” for Washington’s enemies in the region.

What most of these analysts ignore is that U.S. military policy in Syria was never about anything other than hammering the Islamic State into the sand. Those who worry about a strategic vacuum being created by an American redeployment not only overestimate what a few thousand U.S. troops could realistically accomplish in a multifaceted, burning ember of a civil war, but also expose their strategic blind spot of the bigger picture.

Critics who oppose a departure of U.S. troops from Syria are relying on several arguments, all of which are specious and underpinned by poor assumptions and false premises.

Assumption #1: ISIS exists only where America is not occupying space with its military.

One argument at the center of this narrative is that ISIS will simply regenerate in Eastern Syria the moment the U.S. military packs up and leaves. Without U.S. troops on the ground advising Arab and Kurdish factions, the logic goes, the Islamic State will come back and wreak chaos in the same cities, towns, and villages the U.S.-led coalition just painstakingly liberated.

This claim, however, is incredibly simplistic. It presupposes that the region’s many powers and armed factions in Syria today will sit on their hands and allow ISIS to rebound back from oblivion. To believe this requires one to think the region has covered its eyes and ears over the last four years and failed to learn any lessons from its experience with this vicious terrorist group.

Given everything Iraqis and Syrians have lived through under ISIS subjugation — amputations, stonings, beheadings, forced displacement, manipulation, psychological trauma, war, and impoverishment — it is highly unlikely regional powers would sit idle and fail to resist the resurgence of the group.

Indeed, if there is one thing the Islamic State is successful at, it is bringing traditional adversaries who in normal times would normally confront each other into tactical alliances. Is there any other group other than ISIS that has the ability to put Iran and Sunni tribes in Anbar province in the same side?

Assumption #2: Leaving Syria to Russia and Iran increases their influence and power at America’s expense.

The second argument being cited by critics is that a U.S. withdrawal would hand the future of Syria to the Iranians and the Russians at Washington’s expense.

There are several problems with this line of thinking, the most obvious being that Russia and Iran have always had far greater interests and influence in the country than the United States. The reason Moscow and Tehran decided to ride to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue early in the conflict is because both received immense gains from an Assad-ruled Syria (or, more accurately, had more to lose from a change in the status quo).

For Iran, the Assad regime represented one transport route to funnel weapons and supplies to its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon and as a bridgehead to project Iranian influence in the heart of a largely adversarial Middle East. For Russia, Syria was the last remaining strategic ally in the region and the location of Moscow’s only warm-water port — to allow Assad to fall would be a strategic blow to Russian foreign policy in the region.

If Russia and Iran are calling the shots in Syria, this stems not from an American absence of leadership but rather from the reality that Syria’s political future is far more important to Moscow and Tehran than it is to Washington.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime is entirely dependent on financial and military assistance from those two countries. To allow Assad’s regime to collapse would be a setback to the mullahs and to Vladimir Putin. And because an Assad departure is seen by them as disastrous, Iran and Russia have more of a stake in the outcome of Syria’s civil war than the United States does. To confront the Russians on an issue that matters far more to Moscow than it does to Washington is a sure way to risk an unnecessary, great power conflict with no upside for America.

Argument #3: American service members and taxpayers are obligated to fight and die for Kurds in Syria.

Finally, our elites argue that if America avoids mission creep, declares victory over ISIS, and redeploys out of Syria, it would betray the Syrian Kurdish factions the U.S. has partnered with since 2014 to counter the Islamic State. But the basis of this partnership was always to roll back ISIS — it was not to permanently substitute the interests of Kurds for our own.

The U.S. military has no obligation to help the Kurds establish their own quasi-state, nor should U.S. troops be tasked with such a mission. To assist in this endeavor would be to force the U.S. to take sides in a centuries-old competition between the Kurds and Turks that Washington has no business being in the middle of — at the expense of relations with our putative NATO ally, Turkey.

Ankara would very likely respond by establishing closer relations with Russia as a hedge in retaliation, providing yet one more opportunity for Vladimir Putin to split the NATO alliance — not exactly the smartest geopolitical move Washington could take.

The bottom line is a  U.S. withdrawal from Syria is not the frightening prospect many inside the Beltway claim. There are no good options for Syria’s future — but Syria’s future is not America’s future. To maintain a U.S. military presence in the country indefinitely would be the worst policy option to pursue. Countering transnational terrorism and protecting the homeland from planned attacks from radical Islamic extremists is certainly a U.S. national security interest.

Expanding our anti-ISIS mission and using U.S. troops in a misguided attempt to resolve intractable political problems that only the Syrians and the region can solve for themselves would be the epitome of mission creep — and a disaster for the American people.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, which is a Washington-based think-tank whose goal is to inform citizens, thought leaders, and policy makers of the importance of a strong, dynamic military and promote a realistic grand strategy prioritizing restraint, diplomacy, and free trade to ensure American security. He is a columnist for The National Interest and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @dandepetris.