It Was Time to Leave Syria Anyway

Members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) enter the stadium that was the site of Islamic State fighters' last stand in the city of Raqqa, Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017.

AP Photo/Asmaa Waguih

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Members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) enter the stadium that was the site of Islamic State fighters' last stand in the city of Raqqa, Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017.

If the gains won by Kurdish and Arab sacrifice completely depend on our continued military presence, then they were illusory to begin with.

ISIS is a spent force militarily, and whatever mandate the United States might have had in Syria has run its course. We are not there to take the nation into our custody to rebuild it, or to confront Iran, Russia, and Assad. Nor has anyone made the public case that this country should spend further blood and treasure doing so, or that now in Syria is the proper time and place. Without a well-defined mission, it is time to leave.

From its surprising peak in 2014, when ISIS controlled a vast swath of territory across Iraq and Syria, the group has since lost all but one percent of its former domain. Local forces organized under the SDF have rolled ISIS out of every town and city it once controlled. To the extent that ISIS still exists as a fighting force, it is, as Gayle Lemmon acknowledges, an insurgency.

It is not, however, the world-shaking, nation-upending colossus of conquest that once shocked the United States into action. There is no reason to think that the partner forces that the United States aided in retaking Syria are incompetent to hold it in check. Nor is there any reason to assume that the United States has any particular talent for suppressing an insurgency. Nearly two decades after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban is no closer to total defeat. Why should we assume our involvement will produce a different result in Syria? If we do not, there is no reason to again commit ourselves to an interminable occupation.

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Gayle Lemmon makes the further point that the United States owes a continued presence to our allies so as to ward off an anticipated Turkish invasion. It is true that this nation owes a moral duty to those who have fought besides us. However, if our best means of fulfilling it is to stand as human shields between one set of allies and another, then we have already failed. That is no fit task for the deployment of our military in a foreign land – indefinite as it is in scope and purpose. Military might is not our only mechanism of power, and should in fact be our last resort. If the gains won by Kurdish and Arab sacrifice completely depend on our continued military presence, then they were illusory to begin with.< Only negotiation with Turkey can provide a stable basis for Kurdish Syria’s future autonomy.

Finally, Gayle Lemmon says a U.S. withdrawal would hand a victory to Iran, Assad, and Russia; National Security Adviser John Bolton has similarly argued that continued confrontation with those powers is an important aspect of the American mission. However, to the extent that Congress’ war authorization may or may not allow the fight against ISIS, it does not include Iran, Assad, and Russia in its scope. It’s more than a decade old and directed at al-Qaeda. It certainly does not justify a new Syrian occupation if its primary or even substantial purpose is confrontation with Russia, Assad and Iran.

If those are indeed enemies that the United States must confront militarily, then that case must be made to the public, and the fight must be specifically authorized by Congress. Geographically and temporally unbound declarations of necessity are no substitute for the constitutional requirement that the use of military force depends upon Congress’ authority.

Though there may be good reasons to remain in Syria, they have not been debated before or sold to the American public, and they have not been acknowledged by Congressional authorizations. Without a specifically defined mission, a continued American occupation in Syria will simply lead us into another well-intentioned morass of the same sort that has consumed so many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enough is enough. ISIS is no longer an existential military threat, and we are finished.


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