If Afghanistan is America’s longest war, and Iraq it’s dumbest, well then Syria must rank as the nation’s forgotten, and, potentially most treacherous war. Only you’d never know it. The big three television news networks hardly mention the U.S. military’s continued involvement there and national newspapers relegate the Syrian campaign to the deep recesses of their foreign policy sections. President Trump – his alleged affairs, latest gaffes, and overall personality – dominate the front pages and generate the real profits.
All the while, ever so quietly, the nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers in Syria that President Trump has now ordered to withdraw from the country, have continued to advise, assist, fight, bomb, and build in that war-torn mess of a country. Furthermore, under the radar, American servicemen continue to die in this conflict – 67 so far, plus another 74 wounded – which no one in Washington wants to label a “war.” Well, call it what you will, but when U.S. military members kill and die on some patch of lonely desert it most certainly qualifies as war.
What’s most distressing – besides the public apathy about this deployment – is the unchecked and unquestioned expansion of the U.S. military mission in Syria. Bottom line: the United States Armed Forces lack a sufficient legal foundation for the intervention, regularly find their mission sets enlarged, and have yet to receive a distinct exit strategy. This all amounts to a formula for what the post-9/11 U.S. government seems best at – getting mired in perpetual foreign wars that are manifestly not in the nation’s vital strategic interest.
To understand just what the U.S. military is doing in Syria, one must dig deep in mainstream and alternative publications, piece together information, and then attempt to craft a coherent narrative. This isn’t easy to do and it’s designed not to be. That’s because America’s mess in Syria would wither under the light of public transparency or meaningful congressional oversight.
America’s ongoing war in Syria drags along with a peculiar, if familiar, inertia. The conflict is underreported – by the media and the administration – because that is how the Washington establishment prefers it. Real transparency and oversight would expose this mission for what it is: a dubiously legal, indecisive, and potentially never-ending quagmire. The powers that be hope to keep American casualties just low enough to avoid public scrutiny whilst continually expanding the scope of American occupation and involvement in Syria. It is a formula followed with precision by Democratic and Republican administrations alike after the brief 2006 congressional midterm election refutation of George W. Bush’s “go-big,” high casualty, nation-building strategy. After the folly of the Iraq invasion and occupation, American interventionism didn’t disappear – it just cleverly changed stripes.
Let us look, in detail, then, at the risks and questions not asked in America’s Syrian intervention. First off, what exactly is the legal – domestic and international – foundation for the U.S. military presence there? Well, there really isn’t one. Domestically, the American people, and Congress, have little stomach for a new war in Syria. President Obama knew this and was proven right when, after asking the legislature for a new Syria-specific Authorization for the Use of military Force (AUMF), Congress quickly balked. Obama, a consummate political operator, didn’t want to intervene, but cloaked his hesitancy behind what he knew full well would be congressional hesitancy.
Nevertheless, towards the end of his second term, in response to major ISIS territorial gains, Obama eventually used his (disputed) executive war powers to send American fighting men into Syria anyway. Up to now, President Trump has only doubled down on that and denied the need for any new congressional or legal justification in this continued deployment. Internationally, there is no specific United Nations (UN) mandate for an American troop presence and many U.S. allies have hesitated to become militarily involved. Guess who does have an internationally recognized right to be in Syria: Russia and Iran. Though no doubt nefarious actors themselves, they, at least, were invited by a sovereign host government – Bashar al Assad’s regime. The U.S. presence rests on far murkier basis.
Still, even were we to set aside the questionable legal basis for the American military mission, the publicly announced purported scope of the mission was made rather clear at the outset. The U.S. military, Americans were assured, would only enter Syria as part of an international effort to defeat ISIS’ physical “caliphate” – and nothing else. Since ISIS supposedly represented an existential threat to the homeland (which is highly ridiculous), Washington had the right and imperative to combat the caliphate. As for the legal basis, well, the post 9/11 2001 AUMF would have to do. That legislation, passed as the ruins at ground zero still smoldered, authorized the president to use force against the perpetrators of the attacks. An astute skeptic would then counter – and some did – that ISIS didn’t exist in 2001. Fair enough, but, well, Obama (and Trump) argued that since Al Qaeda (AQ) conducted the attacks and since ISIS was a (sort of) later outgrowth of AQ, that terror outfit fell under the expansive auspices of the decades old AUMF.
Setting aside the many dubious logical leaps inherent in such an argument, let us focus on that assurance – that the deployment in Syria was strictly limited to fighting ISIS. Initially that seemed true. U.S. special operators, aviators, and advisors partnered with any locals willing to fight ISIS – mainly men and women among the Kurdish minority in Eastern Syria – and gradually shrank ISIS’ physical caliphate over the course of two years. Sure, there’d been no congressional declaration of war – however quaint that notion sounds after 17+ years of unilateral intervention – but the mission did, at least, appear limited and successful. That’s when the proverbial wheels came off the Syrian incursion.
By 2018, with the caliphate seeming all but extinguished, the U.S. military force in Syria found itself pulled in countless new directions. Washington was now inextricably linked with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which the Turks viewed as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurd terrorist PKK organization. Soon enough, Turkey was making military threats and even invading parts of Northern Syria. By late November 2018, Secretary of Defense Mattis ordered the already thinly stretched American ground force to set up new observation posts in the north, meant to provide a buffer between the warring Turkish and Kurdish parties. Such a buildup and shift of mission clearly saw the U.S. drifting away from the original ISIS-oriented goal of the incursion. As for Turkey, President Erdogan was hardly on board and continued to threaten military action against the U.S-backed, and protected, Kurds.
So it was that the U.S. military found itself in a precarious position as a buffer between two combatants and veritably on the verge of war with a NATO ally. Precious few policymakers asked about the end game, the long-term plan. Was the U.S. military to provide a permanent shielding presence in Syria, just as it did for many decades in the Sinai Desert between Israel and Egypt? When would such a mission end? What would be the enduring impact on the Syrian nation-state? One prescient Congressman, Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer, raised concerns that permanently occupying certain towns and sections of Syria on a lasting basis would fragment the Syrian state, turning it into what he found akin to a series of “medieval kingdoms.”
More disturbingly, by 2018, U.S. and Russian military elements found themselves locked in a “stare-down” along the Euphrates River, essentially dividing Syria into two feuding halves. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, American and Russian troopers faced off along a tenuous demilitarized zone – one mistake or misunderstanding away from regional, or even nuclear, war. Before the end of the year, there had already been far too many close calls. In February 2018, some 200 Russian mercenaries were killed by American airpower when they attacked a small U.S. outpost. Luckily, a cautious President Putin didn’t claim these Russian nationals on that occasion. Then, in late November, the U.S. envoy to Syria provided the stunning admission that American and Russian forces had by then “clashed a dozen times” in country, “sometimes with exchanges of fire.” The fact that this utterly disturbing revelation wasn’t front page news only affirmed the American apathy and purposeful amnesia regarding the entire Syria mission.
Nor was ISIS actually defeated, in a final sense, by November 2018. Late that month, U.S.-backed (mostly Kurdish) forces embarked on a supposedly conclusive battle with the last few thousand ISIS fighters in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) – the last physical stronghold of the so-called caliphate. Though U.S. commanders predicted a final victory there, little was said about the future manifestation of ISIS or the eventual American exit strategy. Though ISIS may indeed be eventually beaten in the MERV, various estimates found that there were an equal or greater number of ISIS fighters waging a low level insurgency and terror campaign elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. Few public figures asked what role the U.S. military would play countering that new Islamist threat, and for how long? By year’s end it was unclear whether a political solution or a long-term redeployment plan was even in the works. This should have been distressing given the two-decade record of U.S. military counterinsurgencies turning into perpetual quagmires. It seemed Syria would be the next such disaster – a new cautionary tale about the limits of American military power. Still, most just ignored these salient issues.
As for the Trump administration, it seemed intent on even further expanding the scope and purpose of the Syria mission – stretching the 2001 AUMF to the point of farce. National Security Advisor, and longtime-Iranophobe, John Bolton, casually announced that “[U.S. forces] are not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” In other words, the ISIS-defeat mission was publicly changed to a counter-Iran mission. This astonishing and (arguably) extralegal announcement barely broke thru the daily news-as-entertainment cycle.
Hardly anyone questioned either the capacity of the small U.S. military mission to achieve such an outcome, or just how long America would be willing to wait-out Iran? That’s because Iran, or at least its affiliated “militias” – whether Iraqi Shia or Lebanese Hezbollah – will never leave Syria unless expelled through an all-out war. Iran and Syria have been close partners since at least 1979. There’s nothing new there. Iranian militias and military advisors were invited by President Assad, shielded by Russia, and unlikely to move one inch in response to such bellicose – and ultimately toothless – American assertions. This Iran-angle to the Syria mission put the final nail in the coffin of the “ISIS-only” mission and spelled many more years of potentially perpetual war in a Mid-East locale. Again.
All of this would be appalling enough on its own, but matters are even worse than they appear. The U.S. military presence in Syria, and its swollen mission set present several major (even existential risks) to American interests and safety. Should affairs continue on their current path, the U.S. may find itself in a shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia or even a NATO ally, Turkey. Furthermore, if the “war on terror” has demonstrated anything, it is that the longer the U.S. military stays on the ground, the more likely the outbreak of a prolonged nationalist/Islamist insurgency that may stretch far beyond ISIS to the broader Sunni population.
Finally, such questionably legal and doubtfully legitimate interventions – executed without congressional mandate – threaten to upend the ostensible constitutional framework for war-making. True liberals and genuine (small c) conservatives alike should abhor such executive overreach – whether perpetrated by President Trump or Obama. President Trump is right to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Continued military action in Syria is all risk and no reward, a formula for disaster and endless war. It is upon the rock of Syria – among other ongoing conflicts – that the future of U.S. foreign policy and the fate of the Constitution itself may be tested. The outcome is unclear, but prudence seems a distant prospect. Woe to – what’s left – of the republic.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]