We all know that President Trump plays to the crowd and cameras and then sometimes flip flops on policy proposals like a fish out of water. However, he recently shocked his national security advisers by saying that the United States was “was knocking the hell out of ISIS” and would pull its forces out of the Syria “like, very soon.”
He then suspended $200 million in funding designed to stabilize that war-torn country. However, the U.S. national security bureaucracies, using the recent chemical attack in the Syrian civil war, are fighting back against an immediate American withdrawal.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment and media were instantly alarmed by the prospect that a U.S. military mission to a foreign country could actually end. If Trump’s desired withdrawal from Syria ever happens, this situation would be unusual in the history of American foreign policyfor example, the United States has had a military presence in Japan and Europe since World War II ended in 1945, the same in South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953, in Afghanistan since 2001, and in Iraq since 2003 (in this case, U.S. forces left for a brief time and then went back).
Trump was trying to keep his eye on the original mission for sending U.S. forces to Syria in the first place: to smash the radical Islamist group ISIS, which has largely been eradicated from the cities of Iraq and Syria. Yet the U.S. national security bureaucracies have already been busy in their usual “mission creep” for American military adventures. Secretary of Defense James Mattis had previously declared, “We’re going to set the conditions for a diplomatic solution [to the Syrian civil war].”
Similarly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, before his ouster, had pronounced, “It is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, and assist the Syrian people ... to achieve a new political future.” The Pentagon went even further, its spokesman saying that the U.S. military would work with friendly local forces “to secure and stabilize liberated territory, as our diplomats work to resolve the Syrian conflict.” Thus, the two major new goals created as the ISIS caliphate was being decimated were guarding the liberated territory from forces friendly to the Syrian regime and garnering influence in any peace talks on the future of Syria.
It is not uncommon for “limited” U.S. military interventions to expand their objectivessuch mission creep had disastrous results during the peacekeeping mission to Lebanon in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration and a similar mission to Somalia in the early 1990s during the Clinton administration. When the U.S. intervened against ISIS in Syria, a key question was always what will be done with territory liberated from ISIS. If the U.S. does withdraw, that territory likely will be taken over by Russian-backed Syrian forces or Iranian-backed militias.
Despite the original mission of destroying ISIS’s caliphate largely being accomplished, many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment would regard such relinquishment of territory as dangerous to “U.S. interests”which really seem to be alleged Israeli interests, given that what happens in Syria is not intrinsically strategic to the United States. However, it is hard to fathom why a rival Russian- and Iranian-backed Syria engulfed and preoccupied by a civil war is more dangerous to Israel than the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syria of old, which had no depleted military.
At this point, even though Trump laudably wants to withdraw from Syria, the unfulfilled desires of prior, more competent presidents to permanently withdrawal from South Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq would predict that the national security bureaucracies may be successful in resisting his effort. The bureaucracies have already succeeded in getting Trump to back off an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Furthermore, the Syrian government’s recent use of chemical weapons has made it even more difficult politically for that pull out.
Moreover, with his new hardline national security teamnational security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeowithdrawal from the civil war in Syria will be that much less likely. More probable will be the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, likely leading to war with Iran, and a thoroughly unnecessary preventive war to get rid of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles, which could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians and Americans in South Korea and Japan.
Trump’s desire to get out of Syria is a glimmer of hope in this otherwise dismal outlook, but even that may be quashed by the U.S. foreign policy establishment.