(Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

Opinion: What the hell are we doing in Syria anyway?

Matt Saintsing
March 30, 2018 - 12:48 pm

President Donald Trump announced Thursday, at an event in Richfield, Ohio, that the U.S. military would leave Syria “very soon," adding another unexpected pronounement of contradicting U.S. policy towards Syria.

“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” said Trump, adding “Let the other people take care of it now.”

Trump’s comments came just hours after Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told reporters that “important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat to these violent extremists in (Syria).”

"We must not relent on ISIS or permit these terrorists to recover from their battlefield loses," she said, adding that the group still poses a threat.

With the commander-in-chief proclaiming such a swift policy reversal, the questions begs, what the hell are we even doing in Syria?

American interests in the war-torn country now in its eighth year of a brutal civil war have always been murky, at best. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted then-President Barack Obama who McCain said had “no realistic strategy to address the removal of (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, the growth of Russian and Iranian influence, or the strength of al Nusrah,” an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria.

McCain was right then, and his words are just as applicable today. While the arc of history is long, I have a hard time believing it will be kind to Obama’s Syria policy, as the previous administration failed to propose a strategy that could address the extremely intertwined challenges of the trio mentioned by McCain.

The mission has crept so much that the initial team of around 50 special operations troops in northern Syria in October 2015 has ballooned to 2,000 total American forces, the Pentagon revealed in December.

That same month, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said he expects as ISIS loses ground, more American diplomats and civilian personnel would be sent to Syria, suggesting a more diplomatic approach to stem the violence that has helped fuel the largest refugee crisis since World War II.  

"What we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive, shifting from an offensive terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing...you'll see more U.S. diplomats on the ground," Mattis said.

The current U.S. strategy in Syria, it appears, is to defeat the Islamic State, and then leave. But, that wasn’t always the case. And Trump’s unscripted comments on Thursday, is a departure of what several senior administration and military leaders have stated.

In January, Secretary of state Rex Tillerson, whom Trump has since fired, signaled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader effort to prevent ISIS from gaining ground, carve out a diplomatic path for the eventual departure of Assad, and to stem Iran’s growing influence in the region.

“The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” Tillerson said.

CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump's nominee to succeeed Tillerson and incoming national security adviser John Bolton have both also suggested that the U.S. has interests in Syria that extend beyond militarily defeating ISIS.

But the United States’ Syria strategy is so disjoined that even U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General Joseph Votel acknowledged that the chief ambition of U.S. policy in Syria—the removal of Assad—has failed to happen and Russia and Iran still prop up the brutal dictator. 

The Assad regime, Votel said this month appearing before the Senate Armed Serviced Committee, “is ascendant,” adding that Russia and Iran “have provided (Assad) the wherewithal to be ascendant.” In other words, Assad is winning the civil war thanks to Russia and Iran, and the U.S. isn’t doing anything about it.

To be fair to Gen. Votel, it’s not his mission in Syria to deal with the Iran, Russia, Assad trio. But the failure of the current and past administration to articulate a cohesive realistic strategy plays directly into our adversaries and competitiors in the region, chieftly Russia, Iran, and Assad.

When asked if it was still U.S. policy that Assad must go, Votel declared in a stunning moment of brutal honesty “I don’t know that that’s our particular policy at this particular point.” Let that sink in the general in charge of executing military policy and operations throughout the Middle East doesn't know what the official U.S. policy toward's Assad is, and the fact that Trump is contradicting top officials only plays into Assad's hands as he desperately seeks to hold on to power. 

McCain’s 2015 comments criticizing Obama’s “strategy” are just as applicable today with the Trump administration. However, one thing is for sure, while the U.S. scrambles to tramsit a unified, cohesive plan for Syria the civil war rages on and, as evidenced by Friday by two coalition service members being killed in action in Syria, American troops will still be in danger.