The conflicted American and Western involvement in and approach to the conflict in Syria have come to a head of President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from their relatively constrained mission in the north of the country and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis’ decision to resign in protest. This has brought to the fore a confusing set of aligned and contradicting responses. It is almost as difficult to keep track of the politics of the comments and commentators as it has been to figure out where and how to stand on the war itself.
To understand the current confusion, the path to this moment deserves a review. It began with certainty. The early stages of the conflict, part of the then optimistically viewed Arab Spring, seemed to offer clarity: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the “bad guy,” those fighting him were Syria’s future salvation. Americans, among others, at this point were urged to side with the latter, even as they lacked the political heft and legitimacy to justify such an intervention. And for that moment, any policy or strategy of intervention was stymied.
Extremists Enter Syrian Conflict
However, as Al-Qaeda and its bastard child ISIS, among others, began to take root in the conflict, where to stand became murkier. While Assad’s negatives remained as potent as they had ever been, worries about who would fill the vacuum in the wake of defeat chastened actions against the regime. Policy and strategy paralysis continued, perhaps justifiably. Support for Assad remained unpalatable, but ouster was impossible.
ISIS’s rampage across Syria and into Iraq to establish their state clarified the necessary response with regard to the latter state’s woes. More so, this was made feasible as Haider al-Abadi‘s government, which came to power in the wake of the ISIS offensive, demonstrated two key virtues. First, they were manifesting the political will to fight for their own salvation, and second, they could define the supporting role American and coalition arms could provide to aid their fight to dislodge ISIS from Iraqi territory. Nevertheless, as concerned ISIS in Syria, there remained few good options.
Enter Vladimir Putin. In late 2015, he chose to join the conflict in Syria in firm support of Assad and his regime. Whether this was against ISIS is entirely debatable, but also irrelevant at this point, as their defeat was not the necessary requirement to sustain the regime. Like it or not, irrespective of any opinions on the Syrian leader, this was a realistic strategy with the best chances for success. Assad had the political heft to be a reliable partner in the war. At that moment, the policy and strategy calculus had changed in the Syrian leader’s favor.
What remained to be decided was how and when ISIS’ state demise would be orchestrated and what a post-civil war Syria would look like. ISIS’ defeat in Iraq was on the march but would struggle so long as the former’s strength of position remained in Syria. In that moment, I would have recommended the difficult choice to side with Putin on Assad (and I did so at the time, on CNN International, with Hala Gorani).
Understanding all of the negatives, the fact remained that the Russian leader’s intervention had irrevocably changed the calculus. If we wanted to participate in the political disposition at the end of the conflict – where the real fate of Syria would be written – then this choice was necessary. Of course, this would have been an extremely difficult strategy to sell to the American and international public. It was a path not chosen.
Consequences of Fighting ISIS Without Assad
Instead, in early 2016 the U.S. led the middling position to fight ISIS in Syria (with airpower and aid to local forces) without full support to Assad. This has enabled the defeat of the ISIS territorial state but has left undetermined the thornier problem of the enduring civil war in Syria and the role ISIS can continue to play in it.
Which brings us to the policy, political, and strategic problem the U.S. finds itself in today. There is a military mission that plays an important role in the continuing fight against ISIS in support of critical allies like the Kurds, but which is difficult to explain or justify insofar as its broader policy objectives are concerned. And here, Trump’s transactional views of foreign policy and military strategy have disrupted the status quo. Without clear benefit to the U.S., the strategy of the intervention was vulnerable. Even in its imperfections, it held a certain value, at least insofar as maintaining some position to speak to the post-war status.
Such sublime benefit, however, escaped the calculus of the Commander-in-Chief. And given the complexity of the situation, the aftershocks of the recent withdrawal decision demonstrate unprecedented consonance and dissonance among wildly disparate groups.
Americans long told that ISIS is a threat cannot understand leaving before the job is done, irrespective of their views of President Trump. No less than Brian Kilmeade of Fox and Friends attacked the Commander-in-Chief’s decision on Friday morning. Those critical of unending military interventions are in favor of the decision, despite their enduring opposition to Trump. Unable to divine whether this helps or hurts Iran, Syria/Assad, or Putin, has partisans for and against these parties aligned with their opposite numbers based on differing choices on that analysis.
Those who stand against Trump are conflicted on whether to side with resigned Defense Secretary Mattis depending on their view of the intervention in Syria. That is, we are problematically in a situation where analysis of this situation is defined by broader opinions.
Such a state of affairs is not entirely useful to a public which deserves some form of guiding clarity on national security decisions. I cannot pretend to have the best answers on the way ahead, but I can offer some insight to those who want to think sensibly about the issues of Syria, ISIS, the use of military force, and U.S. foreign policy in the age of President Trump and beyond.
What to Think of Intervention in Syria?
First, irrespective of views on the intervention in Syria, how we do things matters. Unilateral, surprise decisions and precipitous action invariably cause more problems than they solve, even if they are in support of the wise choice. The damage to American relationships with allies over the shock of this decision will cost more than its wisdom might gain.
Second, building on this, the untenable practice that has become all too common of administration officials and Congressional leaders contradicting the president must end – assuming that the Mattis crisis has not already killed it. This may be an unintended positive outcome of the present tumult because for too long the practice has allowed too many to ignore the realities of the president’s agenda and likely decisions. No matter how well meaning the reassurances have been, the fact is the president, not any of these others, is in charge.
Third, we in the U.S. must reassert Congressional political control of the use of force and the military by the president, irrespective of party. Real debates and discussions of clearly identified ends, ways, and means must return to this decision-making process. Hiding behind cheap patriotism about supporting the troops and believing that because they are competent, we should agree to any military intervention can no longer substitute as the basis of our choices.
Fourth, given the sectarian and geopolitical schisms, strife and conflict in the Middle East will endure for the foreseeable future. Foreign interventions might produce temporary shifts in the various balances, but absent deeper reconciliations, their results will be fleeting. Worse, the secondary and unintended consequences of such interventions will continue to create more problems than they might solve.
Fifth, arguments regarding sensible policy in the age of an unconstrained President Trump should be avoided. They encourage wishful thinking and get in the way of the necessary conversations of how to manage the situations and problems he creates and how to forestall the truly awful choices he may very well make.
Sixth, and finally, the American public needs to come to grips with the reality that in foreign policy and international relations there are no perfect solutions. No matter the power or ideals a state may hold, the international arena defies control and perfection. Accepting the necessity for compromise across a range of issues, choices, and outcomes is the phase of societal maturity that has been eschewed for too long. The time has come for that naivete to end.
This analysis may feel unsatisfying, may seem to leave readers with few answers and more uncertainty regarding their correct apprehension of the current situation, and those challenges to come in the future. That is as intended. And as paradoxical as it may seem, such a state of enlightened confusion will serve the U.S. and the international community better to hedge against hubris, partisanship, or propaganda in national security policies.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.