Americans have lots on their minds these days — a deadly pandemic, a devastated economy, urban unrest, a national reckoning with racism, hurricanes and wildfires and, at the highest levels of government, epic dysfunction. Oh, yes, and a presidential election. But they would do well to pay at least a modicum of attention to the latest plot twist in what used to be called the Global War on Terrorism.
In accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term, Tweety McTreason bragged, “I have kept out of new wars and our troops are coming home.” That statement is nominally accurate. Indeed, on Friday, his administration announced plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops still in Iraq more than 17 years after the United States invaded that country.
Yet Trump’s claim is also profoundly misleading. In fact, his promise to end America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East remains unfulfilled. Syria offers an illuminating case in point.
The rationale for U.S. military involvement in Syria, dating back nearly a decade, has evolved. Initially, the aim was to assist Syrian militants attempting to overthrow the country’s leader, dictator Bashar Assad. That effort has definitively failed. A subsequent goal was to destroy Islamic State. Today it no longer exists as a territorial entity, although thousands of insurgents remain at large.
This partial success sufficed to persuade Trump that Syria was one endless war ripe for ending. In December 2018, he ordered the small American troop contingent there to leave, tweeting, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.” As is so often the case with this president, however, orders did not produce compliance.
Whatever the intentions of the commander-in-chief, the Pentagon wasn’t ready to call it quits. So rather than departing, U.S. troops simply abandoned their positions (and their Kurdish allies) in northern Syria, with just a few hundred taking up new positions in the eastern part of the country.
To secure Trump’s buy-in, senior administration officials devised a new mission sure to resonate with the president: guarding Syrian oil and gas fields. In fact, the real purpose was to pursue the remnants of Islamic State, albeit with too few troops to make a decisive impact.
Whether intentionally or not, the end result has been to insert a handful of Americans into a Wild West environment thick with warring Syrian factions, plus Kurds, Turks and Russians. All of these combatants possess sharp elbows.
Alone among the forces who are carving out spheres of influence in Syria, the United States lacks an identifiable strategic purpose. Syrian oil and gas fields aren’t ours and won’t be. As to Islamic State, our troops are there in numbers large enough to serve as targets, but nowhere near big enough to do more than harass.
Meanwhile, Russia stirs the pot. Last week, U.S. forces and Russian army units faced off in a military version of bumper cars. A Russian helicopter swooped over a U.S. military convoy, and a Russian military police vehicle collided — apparently on purpose — with the Americans. Although no one was killed, several GIs were injured and required medical treatment. This was only the latest in a series of similar provocations.
So instead of a realistic policy defined by clear national interests, the United States drifts toward a confrontation with Russia in a place that virtually no American believes is worth dying for. The murky state of U.S. policy endows the Kremlin with a huge advantage, which it is actively exploiting.
At a recent conference in Washington, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the United States Central Command and therefore responsible for all U.S. military activities in the greater Middle East, remarked: “I don’t think we are going to be in Syria forever.” Whether the general was expressing a wish, a hope or a prediction was not clear. Unfortunately, some equivalent of forever remains a distinct possibility.
Trump, who is obsessed with getting reelected, won’t be bothering with Syria between now and Nov. 3. If he wins a second term, the mindless strategic drift of the last four years will persist. The endless wars won’t end, in Syria or anywhere else.
Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, obsessed with ousting Trump, will find it politically advantageous to make a show of striking a get-tough posture on Russia on the stump. This may well have real consequences. Recall President Kennedy, Cuba and the Bay of Pigs: Tough talk on the campaign trail can foster reckless misjudgments once in office. (Imagine, if you will, Trump’s Twitter feed should a President Biden stumble into a military showdown with Russia.)
McKenzie believes “there’s no viable military solution to the conflict in Syria.” Given that the American people have had their fill of ponying up vast quantities of blood and treasure for unwinnable and frequently inexplicable military campaigns, his judgment is indisputably correct. So what to do?
Acknowledge the obvious. As with the larger war on terrorism, the U.S. military campaign in Syria has long since reached a dead end. The United States has far more pressing matters to deal with, much closer to home. So prudence alone dictates a prompt U.S. military departure from Syria. Sadly, in Washington, prudence has for years now been in short supply.
Andrew Bacevich, a contributing writer to Opinion, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.