A U.S. Marine fires an M777-A2 howitzer during a fire-support mission in Syria, June 2017. (Photo: Sergeant Matthew Callahan / USMC)
The dissonance between Trump's public pronouncements on the matter and the administration's stated policy is reaching cacophonic proportions. Just a few months ago, the president signed off on an updated strategy for Syria that laid out five key objectives and emphasized the need to contain Iran. The strategy called for denying Tehran the Middle Eastern sphere of influence it covets, and preventing it from using Syria as a base to further destabilize and threaten the region. This came as welcome news to those who have long considered Iran to be the chief threat facing the U.S. and its allies in the region. It also reflected Iran's prominent position in the Trump administration's National Security Strategy, released in December 2017.
Unfortunately, the administration has struggled to translate updated policy papers and pronouncements into concrete Defense Department directives and actions. For an example, look no further than General Joseph Votel's testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in February. In his prepared statement, the head of U.S. Central Command identified Iran as "the major threat to U.S. interests and partnerships in the Central Region." But in answering Committee members' questions, he revealed that "countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria."
Why not? At this stage, the Pentagon estimates that ISIS has lost 98 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. Chasing every Sunni jihadist down a desert rabbit hole misses the larger and more threatening trend that the Pentagon already identified in January in its own National Defense Strategy, namely, that "inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security." In other words, the decade-long U.S. focus on counterterrorism strategies enabled and empowered dangerous adversarial states such as Iran and Russia at the expense of America's position in the world. It's a stark realization that should mandate an immediate shift in strategy, and the DOD knows as much: They didn't bury the line in question in an obscure passage of the report; they stuck it on page one.
That is why a premature withdrawal from Syria would likely match the disastrous and hasty American exit from Iraq and be far worse than President Obama's efforts to "lead from behind" in Libya. In fact, it would double down on Obama's worst mistakes, which set the table for the Islamic State's rise and enriched and enabled Iran while allowing Russia to transform itself into the region's chief powerbroker.
Degrading Iran's position, whether in terms of its nuclear plans or its effort to become a regional hegemon, should be America's top priority in the Middle East. In Syria, that means denying Iran the ability to convert its areas of strategic depth into zones of control. America's efforts should focus on preventing Tehran from strengthening Hezbollah and the rest of its terrorist proxies, limiting the expansion of its military-industrial complex with the creation of new missile-manufacturing facilities in Syria and Lebanon, and denying Iran the opportunity to conduct nuclear-related weaponization experiments far from the prying eyes of the IAEA.
It is understandable that President Trump would want to limit the investment of American capital in Syria's reconstruction and avoid responsibility for gluing the Syrian Humpty Dumpty back together again. Instead, the U.S. can start by working with the more pragmatic and wealthy Sunni Arab states and select anti-Iran militias already on the ground. Tehran and its allies share a unity of purpose and benefit from Russia's backing. Only American leadership can bring balance to this equation by unifying and leading the disparate forces that seek to prevent additional gains by our adversaries.
Maintaining a military presence in Syria provides the U.S. opportunities to prevent the peaceful imposition of an Iranian post-war order on the country, and to disrupt Iran's logistical lines, including the land corridors it uses for moving arms and personnel. Remaining in eastern Syria allows the U.S. to deny Bashar al-Assad access to vital oil fields and the financial means to rebuild the territory of his loyalists while starving his opponents. It gives Washington financial leverage to help determine Syria's future while preventing the return of ISIS.
Epic foreign-policy blunders tend to haunt American presidents and echo through the ages. Just ask George W. Bush, who 15 years ago next month stood beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Those moments also cry out as warnings of the pitfalls to avoid. There may be many moving parts and no easy solution to the conflict, but walking away from Syria too soon will likely secure for President Trump a regrettable banner moment of his own.