Escalation in Syria means nation-building in Syria

By Bonnie Kristian

President Trump is escalating the military intervention President Obama began in Syria. What started as an “advisory” role in the fight against the Islamic State has “dramatically accelerated” in the last six months, U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk said Monday. There are more U.S. boots on the ground, and they’re closer to the front lines of battle.

“When the [Syrian Democratic Forces] fighters get into trouble or need help to pave the way, they call in U.S. airstrikes and artillery fire," notes a recent report from Raqqa, the besieged ISIS capital in Syria. “And when the U.S. forces see an opportunity to strike, they do so, before alerting Syrian fighters on the ground to move in.” While it is true Trump (prudently, given its sloppy track record) axed the CIA weapon transfers to Syrian militias fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Pentagon has increased weapon transfers to Syrian militias fighting ISIS.

Much of these developments can be attributed to President Trump’s decision to delegate substantial tactical authority to military officers, a hands-off approach that raises the question of whether Trump realizes the certain outcome of the escalation he has permitted. That outcome is nation-building, which candidate Trump emphatically and repeatedly pledged to end.

The inevitability isn’t difficult to see, because the further Washington wedges itself into Syria’s ever-shifting kaleidoscope of conflict—a conflict in which we have no vital national interest at stake—the more responsible for the aftermath the United States will become.

McGurk insisted Friday the acceleration he described won’t lead to nation-building, only to concede in the very same remarks that U.S. troops will work to restore basic utilities like electricity, water, and sewage services. That is a monumental task given the enormous destruction urban battle zones liberated from ISIS have suffered, and it does not easily fit with Trump’s anti-nation-building rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Scenarios in which utilities are not the only nation-building project the U.S. shoulders in Syria are also easy to imagine. In his Friday comments and a similar statement from late June, McGurk drew a line between that level of nation-building, on the one hand, and provision or restoration of humanitarian services, on the other. “People say, ‘We want you to run the hospital, the schools,’” he said. “We say, ‘No, we’re not very good at that.’”

We agree there, but the question is whether this is a line the White House will hold. Already in Syria the president has shown he can be rapidly persuaded to completely reverse his past policies. After cautioning against regime change during the election, rightly drawing on the lessons of Iraq, Trump ordered a direct strike against the Assad government in April because he was saddened by photos of the regime’s victims and reportedly influenced by the feelings of his daughter, Ivanka. Since then, as The American Conservative reports, the Pentagon has expanded the U.S. footprint in Syria in a manner that suggests at least long-term occupation, if not open assault on Damascus, risking catastrophic war with Assad’s ally, Russia.

It does not detract from the evil those photos depicted to ask whether such emotional upset should be the impetus for a split-second decision to attack another government without congressional permission or public debate. And it is not unfair to ask whether a similarly impetuous moment may lead Trump to step well across McGurk’s utilities-but-not-schools line.

The administration’s continued assurances that President Trump will not repeat the nation-building failures of his two immediate predecessors are well taken, but recent history suggests they are inadequate. Whatever Trump’s intentions now, escalation in Syria will lead to nation-building in Syria, exactly what Trump promised voters he wouldn’t do.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on August 10, 2017. Read more HERE