President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of approximately 2,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria this week. An immediate withdrawal appears to have begun. There also appears to be debate about whether U.S. air power might still be used within Syria to further U.S. limited objectives there.
When the Arab Spring erupted in Syria in 2010 the United States chose not to participate in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad of Syria as he suppressed the uprising among his people. President Obama did not want to become engaged in the web of Middle East tribal warfare. He later erred in declaring red lines that he did not enforce, but he was right about not becoming engaged.
Later, in 2014, as ISIS grew and began to control territory in Iraq and Syria the U.S. position changed and President Obama advanced a military presence to confront the growth of ISIS under authority originally given President George Bush in 2001. U.S. forces were deployed to Syria. They also returned to Iraq for one purpose – to defeat ISIS.
A secondary effect of both the Syrian rebellion and the growth of ISIS was the creation of a refugee crisis as millions of Syrians fled to neighboring countries and Europe. The instability created as far away as northern Europe by the Syrian fighting was further impetus for U.S. resolve in defeating ISIS. Stabilize Syria and stop the flow.
President Trump campaigned on defeating ISIS and withdrawing forces from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Almost immediately upon entering office he ordered a top to bottom review of the war with ISIS. He then issued an Executive Order that is still classified secret but reportedly shifted decision-making to appropriate levels and stopped the whack-a-mole approach to chasing ISIS out of one location only to have them appear in another. Instead, they would be destroyed where they were.
In short order, under the leadership of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the changes began showing results and ISIS was essentially defeated in little more than a year. The president withheld decisions regarding withdrawals based on the advice of his cabinet, but now appears intent on moving forward on those promises.
ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq having lost nearly all the territory it previously held. Yes, expect that it will raise its head again somewhere. But the explicit mission is complete. There is no Congressional or UN mandate to expand that mission to remove Bashir al-Assad, to eject the Russians and Iranians, or to fight our NATO ally Turkey to protect our Kurdish partners in Syria in their pursuit of an independent state.
For two decades the United States has been over-committed in the Middle East and Asia – the operational tempo endured by our forces has worn very thin both the equipment and the human beings who must meet those commitments. It is time to pull out of not only Syria, but Iraq and Afghanistan as well. This was part of the President’s mandate when elected in 2016. He withheld fulfilling those promises based on the counsel of others. He no longer sees their arguments as anything more than illegitimate mission creep that is contrary to the national interest.
Trump said this week, “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever?” He has said it all along and he has acted on it. Many agree with him.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, having served two years, submitted a letter of resignation this week effective in February. The former Marine Corps general indicates in his letter of resignation that his views for the direction of the DoD are not consistent with President Donald Trump’s. The differing views were well known, but the announcement seems to have been sparked by Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw from Syria.
Mattis places tremendous emphasis in his resignation letter on alliances and partnerships as part of the structure of American power. In particular, he may perceive it as an abandoning of the Kurds. No doubt Mattis (former Central Command Commander) has probably placed his own personal credibility on the line with the Kurds. They have played a tremendous role in supporting U.S. objectives in Iraq (where we abandoned them after the first Persian Gulf War) and an even greater role in the Iraq War.
Senator Lindsey Graham has also criticized the President’s decision, expressing specifically his concerns about the Kurds as well.
The Kurds are always suspicious about U.S. reliability as a partner. But they once again joined us and played a front row role in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Make no doubt about that. Also, have no doubt that the Kurds, and other partners such as Arab and Syriac Christian militias that have supported U.S. objectives in Syria, face tremendous threats from Syrian government forces, Russia, and Turkey after a U.S. withdrawal.
The Kurds have been sturdy partners to the U.S. They should be recognized and aided in any manner that does not conflict with other major U.S. interests. Our interests are not fully aligned.
Kurds are a persecuted ethnic group that seeks to establish self-government and even an independent state of its own for its people. Nearly 30 million Kurds are spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria.
Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, views some organized Kurdish groups as terrorists. The U.S. and Turkey both classify the PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey also classifies the YPG as a terrorist group, but the U.S. does not and has partnered with the group in its fight against ISIS.
One must place all of this in historical context. At the end of World War I the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. There was talk of creating a Kurdistan for the Kurds that basically would have encompassed about half of modern-day Turkey. The leader of the Turkish people, Ataturk, warned the Allies that a bitter fight would ensue if this was attempted. The War of Turkish Independence developed, extending fighting for two years after WWI. The British suffered a great loss at the Battle of Gallipoli. Greek forces that led the charge were routed.
The objective of U.S. involvement in Syria was to destroy ISIS. That goal was achieved. Those who seek to retain a presence in Syria see remaining as a means by which to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to use the presence to thwart the expansion of Iranian and Russian influence in the region.
That is a mission creep that the President is not willing to support. There is no U.S. policy to remove Assad by force. There is no U.S. policy to establish a Kurdish enclave in Syria contrary to the interests of a U.S. ally – Turkey. There is no U.S. policy to remove forcibly Russia and Iran from Syria. There is no policy to destroy Hezbollah in Syria.
The Middle-East is a tangled web of historic animosity, ancient grudges and fanaticism. The U.S. has been dragged into this web in Afghanistan and Iraq and now peripherally in Syria and Yemen. There is tremendous disagreement about the efficacy of such actions.
Place the historical animosities within the context of a blatant struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over who will lead the Middle East’s Sunnis and a concomitant struggle between Shiite Iran and the Sunnis over who will dominate the Middle East more generally.
The President appears to have decided that the never-ending engagements in Syria and probably Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer worth continuing. Only time will tell if he is right. His Secretary of Defense disagrees with him strongly and has resigned.
The Secretary of Defense is resigning after serving two years in the position. That is not unusual. President Barrack Obama had four Secretaries of Defense, each serving about two years. President Obama fired General Mattis when he was Central Command Commander without as much as an email or phone call heads up. Obama’s team did not like the general questioning their approach toward Iran as they secretly worked on a nuclear deal. Fine, it was President Obama’s prerogative to fire him. It was not the end of the world.
What is important is the fact that President Trump is forcing a debate on the direction of U.S. national security strategy. For decades hawks have been able to justify almost anything based on 9/11. That time is rightfully coming to an end. There are much bigger fish to fry. Asymmetric cyber warfare is the greatest existential threat to the United States. U.S. National Security Strategy and resources should shift to that very real and dangerous threat.