Steering Forward in Syrian Quagmire

Chris Park

Just as Mitch McConnell said, Jim Mattis’s departure from the Department of Defense more than a year ago was distressing. He was confirmed by a 98-1 vote after gaining a waiver from the National Security Act of 1947 that required a seven year waiting period between a retired military personnel could seek the Secretary of Defense spot. Kirsten Gillibrand was the sole no vote, not on the basis of Mattis’s nomination but on her objection to the waiver–a rare bipartisan support in the contentious confirmation process. The only nominee to get less opposition was former VA Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama-era VA Under Secretary. 

Mattis’s approach to foreign policy was more hawkish compared to that of the Obama administration but pales in comparison to views of Steve Bannon or John Bolton. He deterred the administration from acting on the President’s impulses, like the assassination of Bashar al-Assad or a military strike against North Korea. Trump’s military transgender ban also never came to fruition. While unsuccessful, he opposed the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and withdrawals from the Iran Deal and the Paris Climate Accord. 

The point of contention between the Defense Secretary and the President at ultimately led to Mattis’s resignation was on pulling troops from Syria. This chism reveals a larger picture about the troubling “America First” doctrine that defies the foreign policy beliefs dating back to the World War II — the rash policies that Mattis thus far kept more-or-less at bay. While Trump ultimately did not withdraw the troops then, he finally did order the withdrawal of ground troops almost a year after Mattis’s departure.

Granted, an argument can be made that the troop withdrawal is part of an overarching foreign policy agenda. Obama’s much-contested withdrawal from Iraq was a fulfillment of a Bush-era agreement with the Iraqi government. However, what truly sets apart “America First” doctrine is not necessarily a shift in policy, though it often is, but the way in which a policy is carried out. In this case, Trump’s abrupt announcement of withdrawal via Twitter combined with the general disregard of geopolitics and long-standing American commitments in the region show the chaotic and irresponsible nature of the Trump policy agenda.

The reality is that withdrawal of troops from Syria was a mistake. 

As delineated in Mattis’s resignation letter, a part of the reason has to do with the need to maintain alliances, like the one with the YPG, the Kurdish militia in Syria. They serve as necessary American allies against ISIS, helping gather useful intelligence and deterring the rising Iranian and Russian influence in the region. Syrian Kurds will likely continue to hold significant sway over Arab geopolitics. The troop withdrawal would surely fracture the relationship, especially as Kurds continue to engage in a protracted armed conflict with Turkey and with Erdogan—to whom Trump reportedly told Syria is “all yours”—hellbent on crushing the Kurdish rebels. 

While immediate Turkish offensive that ensued after the American withdrawal was troubling, the lack of U.S. support for Kurdish allies likely would not invariably lead to a long-term humanitarian crisis, as Congressman-elect Dan Cranshaw posits in his Washington Post opinion piece. The Kurds would likely find another ally to ward off Turkish influence that would predate and likely prevent a large-scale humanitarian disaster–perhaps a figure like Bashar al-Assad of Syria. If humanitarian concerns do not apply, there still is a massive strategic question that needs to be asked: does the United States want a tyrannical Russia-friendly dictator to retain his relevance as a major player in the region?

There also remains the question of ISIS. Despite what the President says, ISIS presence—albeit weakened—remains strong. 2010 Iraqi withdrawal under Obama is what originally brought ISIS to power. Leaving now would only go back on the progress by the United States to stabilize the region since the insurgence of ISIS and give the terrorist group a chance to reorganize. Having an extreme militant group only adds to the instability of the region, jeopardizing global security which, in turn, jeopardizing American national security. 

To question whether U.S. intervention in the Middle East is the right thing with a microscopic view of today’s engagement is not a responsible thing to do. There’s an argument that could be made that previous U.S. intervention in the region—dating back to Desert Storm—that exacerbated its instability. But the clock cannot be turned back. Instead, the question is what is the best course of action as we remain stuck in this quagmire. 

The least damaging way forward is to bolster American commitments to allies and maintain American forces in Syria. Trump’s decision to withdraw is an alarming potential precursor to more damaging foreign policy headed our way in the remaining year of Trump’s first term.