Debunking the recycled talking points of the Washington foreign policy elite

By Daniel DePetris

It’s been over 24-hours after President Donald Trump’s directive to withdraw U.S. ground forces from Syria, and the foreign policy elite keep on levying their complaints. Sen. Marco Rubio has called it “a mistake,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham has used increasingly creative ways to get the president’s attention by relentlessly tweeting about how “ecstatic” the Iranians must be. The people opposing Trump’s Syria decision may be loud, but that doesn’t make them right.

Indeed, with every passing hour, establishment politicians and conventional foreign policy thinkers are deploying increasingly desperate arguments to make their case about why American boots still need to be on the ground in Syria. Curiously, they never seem to have a realistic end-game in mind.

Myth #1: U.S. credibility will be eroded

The American people are often told that the United States is only as effective around the world as its credibility. And yet credibility is a subjective term, a politically appealing instrument interventionists invoke when they have no better argument to make. As my colleague Benjamin Friedman wrote back in 2014, “A good rule of thumb for foreign policy is that if someone tells you our credibility depends [on] doing something, it’s probably a bad idea.”

This golden rule applies in the case of Syria as well. Washington’s fixation on maintaining supposed credibility can just as easily lead to terrible foreign policy decisions of dubious import. History is full of examples when presidents, lawmakers, and national security hawks continued or escalated U.S. military involvement in an overseas conflict—Vietnam and Iraq being the two prominent case studies over the last 50 years. The result has almost always been bad for U.S. national security, blinding the far more important discussion of whether intervention is actually worth the risk.

Myth #2: Don’t pull out because Iran and Russia will win

As Sen. Robert Menendez stated in a press conference, “[T]o withdraw without success is failure...If we leave, Russia and Iran dictate our strategic interests.” In other words: if the U.S. leaves, the mullahs and Vladimir Putin will swallow Syria whole.

What Sen. Menendez and many his colleagues conveniently don’t mention is the context. For one, Syria’s political future has always been vastly more vital for Iran and Russia’s foreign policy interests than it has to the United States. Under no circumstances would Tehran and Moscow be open to Bashar al-Assad’s resignation; Assad may be a bloodthirsty, sinister, and incompetent dictator, but he was a useful proxy to both countries. To the Iranians, Assad provided a strategic relationship in an otherwise indelibly hostile Arab world, a man who was willing to subjugate to take cues from Tehran because his security often depended on doing so. For the Russians, Assad resembled a secular authoritarian who allowed the Russian Navy to dock at Tartus, the only warm-water port Moscow had. Both Iran and Russia invested so much in Syria’s civil war over the past seven years precisely because a post-Assad Syria would be a fundamental blow to both.

To the U.S., Syria’s strategic position never really mattered. Washington does not require a cooperative Syria in order to fulfill its national security goals in the Middle East, including the establishment of a functional balance of power and defending Americans from terrorist attacks. The bottom line is that the U.S. is well positioned regardless of whether Assad is in the presidential palace or not.

Myth #3: The Kurds will be abandoned

While it’s understandable that Syrian Kurdish fighters are angry about the coming U.S. troop withdrawal—viewing any decrease as a betrayal after years of coordination in the field—the fact is that U.S.-Kurdish ties were never more than a tactical arrangement.  The Syrian Kurds saw Washington’s airpower as a highly valuable asset to save their communities from further ISIS encroachment, and Washington viewes the Syrian Kurds as useful local forces to squeeze the organization’s territorial “caliphate.” With ISIS vanquished from 99 percent of its former territory, the U.S. no longer has as much use for the relationship as it did four years prior.

When the U.S. began military operations against ISIS, it never agreed to protect the Kurds in northeastern Syria in perpetuity. Nor did U.S. officials agree to support their wider aspirations for autonomy. Calling a troop drawdown a betrayal suggests that Washington signed up to be Kurdish protectors indefinitely.

Myth #4: ISIS will regroup and attack the U.S.

For the past 17 years of the war on terrorism, proponents of the status-quo have claimed that the U.S. must fight terrorists “over there” so we don’t have to fight them “over here.” This is one of Sen. Graham’s favorite boilerplate lines, which is designed to muddy logic and foresight of the terrorism problem with fear-mongering and emotion. 

The notion that ISIS will experience an automatic resurgence after U.S. troops depart, however, assumes that the other players in Syria’s conflict don’t have an interest in fighting the group. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth; while the war in Syria can be enormously complicated to monitor from the outside, every player on the ground views ISIS as an enemy. Indeed, if there is one similarity Bashar al-Assad, anti-Assad opposition fighters, Turkey, the Kurds, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pro-Assad Shia militias, and Russia have in common, it is ensuring ISIS does not regenerate to 2014 levels. 

One can make a similar point with respect to Afghanistan. All of Afghanistan’s neighbors are invested in killing ISIS and Al-Qaeda terrorist, with or without 14,000 U.S. soldiers being stationed on Afghan soil. If President Trump ordered the U.S. military to significantly downsize in Afghanistan today—a real possibility according to the Wall Street—it’s highly likely the region would pick up the slack. In fact, with the U.S. no longer serving as a security guarantor, the region would have more incentive to get involved.

Over the next days and weeks, the American people will read columns and watch segments on television calling Trump’s Syria policy a sign of weakness and a dangerous mistake. Americans would be wise not to buy into it.  

 Syria was becoming a distraction to the great-power strategy the Trump administration should resource. By getting out of Syria, the U.S. nips further mission creep in the bud and refocuses the national security bureaucracy on the priorities that can impact America’s security and economic prosperity.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Federalist on December 27, 2018. Read more HERE.