Trump, Syria, and Middle East Policy
The President's Middle East military policy is casting a long shadow into 2019.
“A universal peace, it is to be feared, is in the catalogue of events, which will never exist but in the imaginations of visionary philosophers, or in the breasts of benevolent enthusiasts.” –James Madison (1792)
Whether in domestic or foreign policy matters, Donald Trump has shown a penchant for strategic unpredictability that inevitably comes with varying degrees of perceived instability — upon which he thrives.
In 2016, Trump laid out his priorities for defeating the resurgent Islamic State, along with his policy objective in Syria: “What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria. You’re going to end up in world war three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton. You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?” He added that dealing with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was “secondary … to ISIS.”
That being said, in the last two years President Trump has hit Assad’s Syrian regime hard in an effort to win this aspect of the complicate Middle East Chess Match. For certain, American and allied forces in Syria have decimated the ISIS iteration of the Islamic State in the region.
A week before Christmas, the White House announced President Trump’s “slow and highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops” from Syria. According to Trump, “We have won against ISIS … Our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won.”
Trump elaborated, “American and coalition forces have had one military victory after another over the last two years against ISIS, including the retaking of both Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. We’ve liberated more than 20,000 square miles of territory … and liberated more than 3 million civilians from ISIS’s bloodthirsty control … I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds; we’re not nation building. … Our presence in Syria was not open-ended, and it was never intended to be permanent. The men and women who serve are entitled to clear objectives, and the confidence that when those objectives are met they can come home and be with their families. Our objective in Syria was always to retake the territory controlled by ISIS. Now that we have done so, the nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future.”
He concluded, “There will be a strong, deliberate, and orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria — very deliberate, very orderly — while maintaining the U.S. presence in Iraq to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to protect U.S. interests, and also to always watch very closely over any potential reformation of ISIS and also to watch over Iran.”
Notably, he reiterated: “I never said that I’m gonna rush out. … ISIS was all over the place when I took over. It was a total mess in Syria. We’ve almost eradicated all of them. We think all of them will be gone by the time we get out.”
And reiterating the President’s timeframe, his National Security Advisor John Bolton said, “There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal.” Bolton added, the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria will occur, “in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and to become a threat again; and to make sure that the defense of Israel and our other friends in the region is absolutely assured; and to take care of those who fought with us against ISIS and other terrorist groups.”
Regarding Trump’s progressive delivery of his revised military policy in Syria, this was a clear case of the need to take him seriously, if not literally. But arguably, it would be best if Trump would deliver clear policy objectives at once, not progressively.
Clearly, containing Iranian and Russian influence in Syria is important, but not the job of the U.S. military. Trump is, in effect, telling Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Israel, this is their task – that we will provide weapons and aid, but not boots on the ground. The intended net effect of this policy is to strengthen the alliances between Arabs and Jews in the region, who all have an interest in preventing the expansion of Iran’s Islamist influence.
Predictably, criticism of Trump’s decision came in droves from some retired senior military officers and both sides of the political aisle. In effect, Syria has become a debate proxy on our foreign policy.
While the political debate plays out, I turn to my colleague, Gen. B.B. Bell, a retired and highly respected four-star general officer, and member of The Patriot Post’s National Advisory Committee, for military perspective. Gen. Bell writes, in a column on military generals and globalism: “When a retired general or admiral argues that President Trump is an inward looking nationalist and is turning away from our valued international friends and allies, these military leaders do so from the perspective of globalists. That’s who they are and what they know. They have international colleagues and they are invested in the theory that by bringing influence and military power to bear worldwide (just like their Roman predecessors) our so-called global "friends” will help us police the world. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But, after all the money and blood, has it worked? Does it work?“
Bell continues: "When President Trump says that this globalist strategy is actually bankrupting America while killing and maiming our youth, many of the retired generals and admirals are repulsed because most are invested in an expeditionary globalist mentality. Trump just doesn’t understand, they say. My sense is that President Trump understands much more than we are willing to admit.”
Gen. Bell concludes: “It’s time for America to rethink our globalist military strategy. While we do have some crucial allies that we must stick with, we need to have an America first nationalist reawakening, bring many of our troops home (What are we doing in Syria? Good grief!), and reinvest in our country while building military readiness for the future. We’ve got to stop bleeding our youth and bankrupting our budget.”
Perhaps the most controversial of the president’s assertions in regard to Syria is, “We won.” That leaves some asking, what exactly did we win? Amidst the flood of opinion still pouring in from critics and supporters alike, what follows are the most valid pros and cons of the Syria departure.
Supporting the departure:
Troops in Syria, an Obama-era decision, were never congressionally authorized, so the departure is a win for the Constitution. National Review analysts Andrew McCarthy and David French, who otherwise have a difference of opinion on the Syria withdrawal, both agree that the Iraq/Afghanistan Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) did not extend to Syria. French notes, “President Obama should have gone to Congress and sought the necessary authorization to respond.” Likewise, McCarthy declared: “[If] you want to fight that enemy in an elective war, the Constitution demands that the people give their consent through their representatives in Congress.”
We’ll continue to monitor Syria and deny it as a safe haven for terrorism, according to President Trump. One of the foremost critics of the decision to leave Syria was initially Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). However, Graham reversed course after meeting with the president, stating: “[I] feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria.” He noted that Trump remains stalwart in his commitment to preventing Syria from being a safe haven for terrorist cells, saying, “He promised to destroy ISIS. He’s going to keep that promise. We’re not there yet, but as I said today, we’re inside the 10-yard line and the president understands the need to finish the job.”
To Be Determined? If Trump has taught us anything over the last two years, it’s that there’s always a bigger plan in play than what he and the ardently anti-Trump media reveal. Time and again, we’ve seen his decisions turn out better than expected. So we’re going to leave this last “pro” space open — there’s something else at play here that has yet to become clear, and we trust that it’s in our nation’s best interest. Again, Trump is playing chess while the media sees only checkers.
Against the departure:
The U.S. will be less equipped to counteract its strategic enemies. The conflict in Syria is deeply complex, but of the numerous parties invested in the outcome — Syria, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurds, and the U.S., to name a few — our ability to influence outcomes in the region may be weakened as a result of Trump’s decision to depart. Policy analyst Colin Dueck notes: “A sudden and unexpected drawdown of U.S. forces can only reduce America’s leverage against a range of adversaries and competitors including ISIS and the Taliban.” Though we retain the ability to influence the outcome through political and economic means, we are less equipped to influence change without troops on the deck.
Our allies will be less secure as a result, as will our myriad interests in the outcome of the conflict. Even with a reported footprint of only 2,000 troops (assuredly, some of our presence in the region is undisclosed or classified), our presence in Syria helped to assure safety and security to our regional allies by checking our enemies. As The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick writes: “Despite their relatively small numbers, the U.S. forces in Syria have had a massive strategic impact on the power balance in the country. Deployed along the border triangle joining Syria, Iraq and Jordan, the U.S. forces in Syria have blocked Iran taking over the Iraqi-Syria border and so forging a land bridge linking Iran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.” Now, in our absence, Israel and Jordan will have to become better equipped to prevent the flow of logistics, personnel, and ideology from Tehran to Beirut, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
There was speculation about Defense Secretary James Mattis’s resignation before the Syrian shift, but he certainly signaled his disagreement with Trump’s decision. As David French wrote, “Our nation has lost its foremost warrior in protest [of the decision].” Although Trump will surely identify a capable defense secretary to follow in “Mad Dog’s” footsteps, his departure struck a blow to the perceived stability of our military policy. Mattis was the member of Trump’s National Security Council with the most familiarity with military policy in the Middle East, beginning with his command of Task Force 58 during Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 Islamist attack.
The departure of Mattis will also have a significant impact on the morale and well-being of our men and women in uniform, who rightly held him in high regard. But it should be noted that Gen. Mattis also disagreed with President Trump on other important matters of policy: walking away from the Obama administration’s Paris climate agreement and tearing up its Iran nuke deal; moving our nation’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; engaging with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; banning certain “transgender” individuals from U.S. military service; and using U.S. troops to defend our southern border.
For the record, I have, since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, made the case for a bridge between military readiness in the region and deployment of forces. I have argued for a long term presence in the Middle East, not so much by frontline personnel but for prepositioning military assets in the region as an integral part of our long war strategy. As I outlined in a 2005 national security estimate, “One closely guarded objective in securing a free Iraq is to establish a forward-deployed presence in the Middle East – a presence that would certainly include personnel but whose primary component would be massive military-equipment depots that could be tapped for future rapid-deployment military operations in the region.”
In summary, our military analyst, Lee Crockett, concludes that Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan constitute a complex tapestry of international politics and warfare.
According to Crocket: “The Syria conflict is incredibly complicated, and it is a microcosm of the geopolitical conflict between Iran, China, Russia, and the West. One possible outcome could be that the unification of both parties against the pullout could result in a congressionally approved AUMF for any further involvement in Syria. But if history has taught us anything about prolonged wars (see Vietnam, 1964-1973, and Afghanistan, 2001-present) it is that simply pulling chocks and bringing the troops home has resulted in America failing to accomplish its desired ends.
"In 1964, we sought to prevent communism from bleeding into South Vietnam and beyond. Two administrations and three presidential terms later, our national resolve on the importance of South Vietnam faltered, and we abandoned South Vietnam to a communist takeover in 1975. We entered Afghanistan in 2001 to erode the nation’s status as a safe haven for terrorism. Two administrations and three presidential terms later in 2013, our national resolve on the importance of Afghanistan to our national security faltered, and we abandoned Afghanistan to the resurgence of the Taliban and Islamism.
"President Trump wisely returned to Afghanistan in force in 2017, though we returned to a nation that was not only war-torn but also being overrun again by the Islamist Taliban. In 2014, we entered Syria (unconstitutionally though it was) to counteract the Islamic State and prevent the region from harboring terrorist cells. Now that President Trump has decided to depart, have we truly accomplished our initial objective, or will the Syrian departure result in a regional failure to secure our national interests — suffering the same fate as Vietnam and Afghanistan at our allies’ expense?”
The criticism of Trump’s unfolding military strategy in Syria was punctuated by a surprise Christmas visit by the president and first lady to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.
To the resounding cheers of military personnel, Trump asserted: “Our faith and confidence in you is absolute and total. … You are the warriors who defend our freedom. You are the patriots who ensure the flame of liberty burns forever bright. That’s who you are. … To everyone at Al Asad Air Base, and every American serving overseas, may God bless you, may God protect you, and may God always keep you safe. We love you. We support you. We salute you. We cherish you. And together, we pray for justice, goodness, and peace on Earth.”
On that, we can all agree. Above all the political rancor, I ask you to join us in daily prayer for God’s blessing upon our nation, especially for the protection of and provision for our uniformed Patriots and their families, and wisdom for our nation’s leaders.
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776