President Trump is mulling an end to the U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war, commenting Thursday that U.S. troops would exit the country “very soon,” letting “the other people take care of it now.” With the Islamic State deprived of the vast majority of its land and status—the terrorist group now controls just 5 percent of the Syrian territory it had conquered at its peak—and regional powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran invested in preventing an ISIS reprise, Trump has recognized the rationale for U.S. occupation grows increasingly thin.
Ever eager to waste U.S. blood and treasure in misguided attempts to manage the Middle East, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) disagrees. Washington must keep American boots on the ground in Syria indefinitely, he argued in a Fox News Sundayappearance, to permanently police internal Syrian politics and security. “If we withdrew our troops anytime soon, ISIS would come back; the war between Turkey and the Kurds would get out of hand; and you’d be giving Damascus to the Iranians without an American presence; and Russia and Iran would dominate Syria,” Graham toldhost Chris Wallace. “It’d be the single worst decision the president could make,” he continued. “I've seen this movie before when Obama did the same thing in Iraq.”
Graham’s fuzzy history and tortured logic support an ill-conceived strategy—if indeed it is fair to dub perpetual military intervention without regard for cost or consequence a “strategy.” However clumsy his expression, Trump’s shrewd impulse to end U.S. occupation of Syria makes a welcome change from Washington’s ineffective foreign policy. And though he casts himself as a defender of U.S. security, Graham’s proposal would do nothing to protect vital U.S. interests while sapping limited defense resources.
Graham’s use of Iraq as a negative object lesson for what to do in Syria depends on either ignorance or willing disregard of recent history.It is true former President Obama decreased U.S. troop levels in Iraq per the scheduleset by the Bush administration, but the original invasion—not that impermanent and halfhearted withdrawal—is the primary culprit for the rise of ISIS, as even former President George W. Bush has acknowledged. ISIS’s parent organization, al Qaeda, was not active in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, and these terrorist organizations flourished in the Levant most significantly because of the chaos of regime change, building on centuriesof ethnic and sectarian conflict exacerbated in the past two decades. ISIS took advantage of U.S. drawdown, yes, but Graham’s narrative is simplistic, misleading, and irresponsible.
Furthermore, even if Obama had maintained a larger force in Iraq as Graham now advocates for Syria, there is no way to be certain ISIS could have been nipped in the bud by that U.S. presence. Consider that in Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent even though U.S. force levels have notdropped much below 10,000 (not to mention tens of thousandsof U.S. contractors) for more than a decade. This is hardly a compelling case for entrenchment.
Graham’s dire list of potential consequences for leaving Syria bears examination, too, most notably his contradictory assertion that ISIS andIran and Russia will come to dominate the country after U.S. departure. The senator neglects to mention Iran is a Shiite state opposed to ISIS’s Sunni extremists, and Russia, allied with Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, has no interest in permitting ISIS dominance. These regional incentives to stability are most likely what Trump had in mind when he envisioned letting “the other people take care of it now.”
Graham’s other hypotheticals are similarly confused. The fighting between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria is already“out of hand”—insofar as it is conflict between our NATO ally and our close partner in the ISIS fight—which an American footprint in Syria has done nothing to prevent. And Iranian dominance of Damascus, while not ideal from Washington’s perspective, would be balanced by Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia.
“Those wanting a U.S. war in Syria could not clearly show a U.S. national interest,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2014, reflecting on the then-recent push by the Obama administration for military intervention to overthrow the Assad regime with arguments that remain unfortunately relevant today. “A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe,” Paul continued. “Only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best interest of the U.S.” Washington would have done well to heed this basic caution in 2014, and Trump would do well to heed it today.