The media and the political establishment’s excoriation of President Donald Trump for his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the battlefield of eastern Syria has been blistering, as usual. Our exit from the Syrian Civil War is, in fact, well-timed and sensible. President Trump deserves praise for bucking the conventional Beltway wisdom to save the American people and, more importantly, American servicemen from this bloody quagmire.
It pays to recall how we became involved in Syria in the first place. In 2011, in the midst of the chaotic but hopeful “Arab Spring,” a number of global and regional powers, including the United States, decided that now was the perfect time to destabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Accordingly, the Obama Administration encouraged a popular rebellion, while denying the rebels the means to succeed in their revolt.
The result was a strategic and human nightmare. A civil conflict raged that wrecked the Syrian economy, obliterated cities, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and turned millions into desperate refugees. True, Assad is no angel, but the sufferings of the Syrian people since a host of outsiders, including the sage experts in the Obama White House, decided to “rescue” them have far outstripped any indignities that the Assad family could devise.
What was worse was the fact that the Syrian Civil War quickly devolved into senseless and disorganized violence, as the forces “rebelling” against the Assad regime became a multi-headed hydra of terrorists, fundamentalists, and thieves. True, some Syrians fought for democracy and freedom, but the conflict also became saturated with a wide assortment of villains, and with foreign actors—including Russians, Iranians, and Turks—who wished to exploit the opportunity to expand their influence.
Worst of all, Sunni extremists in eastern Syria coalesced into a new movement that became known as the Islamic State. ISIS imposed ironfisted repression, including slavery and torture, on a vast scale, while gruesome executions became the group’s calling card.
Amazingly, in 2014 ISIS decided to export Muslim theocracy and savage violence to neighboring Iraq (and duly conquered large swaths of that failed state), all while fostering a new wave of terrorist violence in the West. ISIS even became active in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines, Palestine, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it metastasized into an evil empire of limitless ambition and sadism.
And this was when the United States finally said “Enough!” Under President Obama, U.S. forces deployed to Iraq to help government forces there stem the ISIS advance. A bombing campaign was waged against ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria, and American special forces began to worm their way into the eastern provinces of Syria to assist the mostly Kurdish forces who were fighting the Islamic State’s war machine.
As the first important victories against ISIS were won, the U.S. commitment to the anti-ISIS crusade mushroomed, especially in 2017 under America’s new president, Donald Trump. U.S. forces constructed bases and airfields in eastern Syria, and America invested billions of dollars in the conflict. Meanwhile, Russian, Turkish, and Iranian forces awkwardly shared the battlefield with American soldiers. All were united in a temporary, tacit, and very uneasy alliance against the ravages of the Islamic State.
The good news is that America’s intervention in eastern Syria was an unqualified success, in terms of advancing the goals that brought us to Syria in the first place: we came, after all, not to oust Bashar al-Assad from power, or to found a new American empire, but to strangle and if possible destroy the Islamic State.
It worked. ISIS has lost 99 percent of its territory, and it has been reduced to the status of a bit player in the Syrian Civil War, no longer able to threaten the integrity of Syria or Iraq, no longer able to project power throughout the Middle East or onto the streets of Western capitals, and no longer able to terrorize the long-suffering people of its eastern Syrian heartland. ISIS is not gone, but it is defeated, and American troops are no longer required to shepherd it to its inevitable demise.
President Trump is right: under the circumstances, Americans should be celebrating the collapse of ISIS, as well as the victorious return of American forces. Instead, the hawkish establishment in Washington, D.C. is carping about lost opportunities and potential strategic advantages ceded to our putative enemies in Russia and Iran.
The truth is we have “ceded” nothing but a dusty expanse that was never ours to command in the first place. The Syrian Civil War will grind on, and Russians, Turks, and Iranians will fall in it, to no great purpose, especially now that the eventual outcome is a foregone conclusion: the Assad family will remain in charge of the vast majority of Syria.
So why is the U.S. foreign and defense policy establishment so outraged by our withdrawal from Syria? What could Americans possibly hope to gain through an indefinite occupation of eastern Syria?
Yes, local Kurds and Sunni Arabs might find our presence there more benevolent than that of Assad, or Russia, or Turkey, or Iran. Eastern Syria is not a dependent territory of the United States, however, and we have no right to decide the fate of its people, especially considering the legitimate government of Syria doesn’t want us on its turf.
Moreover, every second that Americans remain on a battlefield teeming with Russians, Turks, and Iranians, the chances increase that a new and wider conflict will be sparked involving several of these great powers. Do we really want to risk war with Russia, for instance, and the potential nuclear horrors this would involve, simply because we have grown attached to some worthless real estate in eastern Syria? To ask the question is to answer it.
The only other viable argument against President Trump’s withdrawal plan—that further U.S. action is required to finish off ISIS—ignores the fact that other regional threats have long since overtaken the Islamic State on America’s strategic radar.
We cannot—we should not—physically occupy every piece of ground on which a terrorist movement or proto-state might someday take root, or re-root itself. That would be a recipe for the over-extension of American military power, and it would invite a terrible backlash from outraged locals.
The time has come to let others have the “glory” of chasing the last ISIS fighters out of their miserable holes, while the United States refocuses on other priorities, including a host of domestic challenges and the consolidation of Western-friendly regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. There the prospects for something resembling democracy and/or stability, while not particularly bright, are at least brighter than they ever were in eastern Syria.
President Trump has taken a wise and bold course of action in the Syrian conflict and in the battle against ISIS. It is never easy to deny the hawks in Washington their pound of flesh, but in this case American interests are well-served by doing so.
Simply put, ISIS is now Syria’s problem (and Russia’s, and Turkey’s, and Iran’s). We, the American people, having done our part (and more!), wish them all godspeed in finishing the noble work of obliterating the stain on humanity that is and was the so-called Islamic State. The sooner Syria and the world can move on, the better.
Photo Credit: Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images