By Willis Krumholz
There are more than a few areas where public opinion in Middle America stands in sharp contrast to the groupthink that occurs in Washington. One of these areas of discord is Syria and whether American troops should be involved in that country’s seven-year civil war.
While the American public supported President Trump’s limited airstrikes in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad following its use of chemical weapons and the fight to eliminate Islamic State—a radical Sunni group—the public is roundly convinced U.S. troops should not be on the ground in Syria to topple the Assad government. Americans have also long opposed arming anti-Assad rebel groups—a huge portion of which happen to be radical jihadists—despite the Western media’s repeated attempts to whitewash and overlook the rebels’ extremism.
In other words, Americans support fighting jihadists, but they are done with regime change and do not want our soldiers embroiled in a complex civil war full of bad guys on all sides.
And “complex” is an understatement.
On one side of this war sits the Bashar al-Assad regime in the west, its Shia-Muslim supporters Iran and Hezbollah, and Russia—the Assad regime’s benefactor since the Cold War. Allied with Assad are religious minorities including Yazidis and Christians.
On the other side are endless groups of Sunni Muslim rebels trying to topple the regime. These rebels include Islamic State, and jihadist groups that are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Added to the fray is Sunni Turkey—a member of NATO and a supposed U.S. ally—who has intervened to fight Assad, and to fight Kurdish forces who are aligned with America in the fight against ISIS in Syria’s north. Meanwhile, the Sunni Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia have heavily supported the Sunni rebels’ efforts with arms, money, and supplies.
Fortunately, with jihadist groups on the run, there is a chance the Syrian civil war could be nearing an end. In other words, the Assad regime is gaining ground, its grip on power a fait accompli. Russian and Syrian jets have stepped up their bombing of Islamic State positions along the Jordan-Israel border in southwestern Syria. And the White Helmets, an aide group affiliated with the Sunni-rebels, have pulled out and moved to Jordan.
The defeat of ISIS means U.S. troops should be coming home, which is exactly what most Americans want. Yet when they watch cable or network news, or read The New York Times’ editorial page, Americans might think they are the only ones who believe the U.S. should stay out of this war. The Beltway establishment has been calling for U.S. troops on the ground in Syria—to take out the Assad regime—for years. The political class are so convinced American troops should be in Syria that they don’t even bother to make good arguments as to why, or respond to valid criticism of such misguided, unproductive policies.
Because Trump has expressed that he wants U.S. troops out of Syria, they say that he is at risk of being taken “advantage” of by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others say that Trump is a “sell out … to Putin.” Alleged foreign policy gurus like Max Boot—who have been wrong about everything for decades—claim that pulling America out of Syria would make us subservient to Russia or would “hand Putin a victory.” Some of these so-called pundits have even suggested that Trump’s decision to end the CIA’s arming of Syrian rebels—which cost one billion dollars per year and was both overwhelmingly ineffective and resulted in American weapons ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda thugs—is evidence of some nefarious hold that Russia has over Trump.
Most of the time, when someone makes a personal attack or smear instead of making a reasoned case, it’s because they don’t have a good argument to make. This holds true here.
When they can muster one, the argument that is made by the foreign policy establishment says that ceding Syria to Russia and Iran would be a terrible development. Vox wrote that Trump is “desperate” to remove U.S. troops from Syria, and frets this would free up the Assad regime to take back rebel positions in southwestern Syria. Likewise, the Wall Street Journal editorial board knocked President Trump for wanting to replicate a July 2017 de-escalation agreement with Russia, which would allow America to pull its troops out of southwestern Syria. The Journal’s editors said Trump was being “conned” by Russia.
But Russia has operated in Syria since the Cold War. And Iran has had some influence there for decades, mostly a result of religious similarities between Alawites and Shias.
And why should America care if Syria becomes Russia’s problem and not ours? More important, what really matters isn’t what is bad for Putin and Russia, but what is good for America. Despite a defense budget higher in real terms than what Reagan spent during the Cold War, America’s military is seriously overstretched. At a time when we must pivot away from these Middle Eastern political battles and focus on deterring great power conflict, the U.S. can’t afford to get bogged down in Syria.
As for Iran’s influence, which has been the status quo for many decades, the Assad regime would gladly not be subservient to the Mullahs in Tehran forever. But that can only happen if Assad no longer fears for his life.
The other truth is that America’s past efforts to intervene—which includes the billions of dollars spent by the CIA to arm anti-Assad jihadists—has only prolonged the civil war. Up to half a million people have been killed as a result of this terrible war, and another 10 million are refugees. Continuing the war by aiding anti-Assad rebels means more bloodshed and destabilization.
This brings us to the most important point. There is a very real question of what would happen if Assad’s government were ever actually toppled. It is likely that the forces that would replace Assad—unless America remained in Syria for a very long time—would be worse than the Assad regime. Aside from the Kurds that live in Syria’s north, the U.S. doesn’t have a true ally in this fight.
In other words, it is not in America’s interest to be there.
Americans are sick of endless wars, and a bipartisan consensus of ordinary Americans yearns for more realism, restraint, and plain common sense in U.S. foreign policy. Washington must give up its obsession with toppling regimes. We must eliminate direct threats to America, not spend trillions in failed attempts to re-engineer societies, especially in strategically unimportant lands, as we have since 9/11.
The Beltway elite need to make better arguments before we mess with the status quo and put American men and women in harm’s way to fight what, at best, looks like the continuation of the 1,400 year-old struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims. At worst, this looks like a conflict with at least four different sides that could lead to World War III.
Trump ran on representing the forgotten American, and against the D.C. elite, especially on foreign policy. There are few better ways to fulfill that pledge than to pull American troops out of Syria now that ISIS terrorists have been defeated on the battlefield.
Instead of listening to his advisors—all of whom come from the same failed foreign policy establishment—the President should follow his instincts and listen to the American people.
Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.
This piece was originally published by The Federalist on August 1, 2018. Read more HERE.