U.S. military intervention cannot address the grievances that fuel ISIS. Nor does it protect American interests or serve our defense.
The Islamic State is decimated but not eradicated in Syria, the Pentagon inspector general reports, and “ISIS remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that ‘could likely resurge in Syria’ absent continued counterterrorism pressure.”
In light of the last two decades of American foreign policy and the realistic near-future of the nations we’ve occupied, this report should serve as one more piece of evidence that it is time to end U.S. intervention in Syria. Using the chance of a relatively small-scale ISIS resurgence as a reason to delay U.S. withdrawal from Syria is both pointless and reckless, a needless and counterproductive means of exposing America to further risk of great-power conflict while accomplishing little in a war Congress never duly authorized two successive administrations to fight.
And the resurgence, expected “within six to 12 months,” would be fairly small, if the report proves accurate. There are only about 2,000 of these fighters in the area of eastern Syria where U.S. forces have operated, the inspector general says. ISIS leaders “have fewer places to hide;” ISIS morale is thought to be “trending downward;” and the predicted resurgence would only see ISIS regaining “limited territory” in a single region, the Middle Euphrates River Valley. These qualifying factors are all more reasons not to delay the withdrawal plans President Trump announced in December.
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But regardless of the resurgence’s scale, there is larger strategic cause to leave. “If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria,” the report notes, “it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control.” U.S. military intervention cannot address these grievances, and there is no sign whatsoever that either the Syrian or the Iraqi government will do so soon.
This decision point at which we find ourselves with Syria is a chance to learn from recent history, to avoid making again the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq. And the crucial lesson here is that there will always be another enemy who will reemerge in six to 12 months absent U.S. military pressure, because we cannot force the regimes we assist to reform their politics or their armies.
Whether it’s an old enemy, like ISIS, managing some resurgence, or a new enemy, as ISIS once was, emerging to take advantage of the power vacuums created after repeated regime change misadventures, a new fight will always be there if we seek it. A new excuse to prolong conflict to generational lengths will always present itself to those who desire it. This is precisely how the United States finds herself bogged down in the “endless wars” Trump decried in his recent State of the Union address.
That reality shows the flaw in Trump’s exclusive emphasis on the decline of ISIS as a reason for the United States to leave Syria. “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria,” he said at the SOTU. “Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these blood-thirsty monsters. Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
Trump is directionally correct: The U.S. military mission to help local partners liberate ISIS-held territory in Syria is complete. And it’s certainly true that ISIS’s dramatic loss of territory, funding sources, and fighting capacity bolsters the case for American exit. But that is not the primary reason to leave. The primary reason to leave is that staying risks us much and gains little.
There is no credible case that our 2,000 troops could accomplish anything more than they already have by staying. As this potential resurgence itself demonstrates, our military intervention is capable of mowing the grass but not digging out the roots. It is fundamentally mismatched to the task of political and social change needed to move ISIS and its like from suppressed or defeated to unthinkable. We cannot and will not transform Syria by war.
Worse yet, continued U.S. intervention does not protect American interests or serve our defense. On the contrary, it escalates the risk of regional conflict with Iran or even great power conflict with Russia, both of whom are also militarily active in Syria’s close quarters, where they share our opposition to ISIS but back the other side of the Syrian civil war. ISIS’ resurgence would be an immediate problem for our adversaries to deal with, not for us. U.S. security does not require a permanent ground presence in Syria (or Afghanistan or Iraq). We are more than capable of defending against terror threats without simultaneously incurring the risk of larger conflict.
When we have so little to gain and so much to lose, prudence dictates that leaving Syria is the necessary course for American security.
Withdrawal would also be a partial but significant step toward restoring some semblance of responsible governance to U.S. foreign policy. This intervention was never authorized by Congress, as the Constitution requires, and it was never subjected to the public debate that process should entail. This is intervention by presidential fiat; we ought not be surprised to find it costly, ineffective, and dangerous. We might be surprised anyone would wish to see it continue.
Only naivete could deny the possibility of some ISIS resurgence or evolution in the wake of U.S. departure from Syria. That should go without saying. But since the possibility has been raised, it should be seen as an indictment of our existing strategy and an impetus to change course. It certainly does not justify prolonging U.S. entanglement in Syria’s civil war.
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