Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

America’s Withdrawal From Syria Must Be Total

The intelligence community wants to leave behind a permanent base. That's a terrible idea.

Despite President Donald Trump’s December withdrawal order, the United States government announced Friday that it’s considering a plan to keep a remote base in southeastern Syria. It seems strange, since exiting the Syrian conflict is Trump’s most sensible foreign policy decision yet. But clearly, top military aides and intelligence officials aren’t yet ready to give up their longstanding—and bloody—approach to the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war has cost over half a million lives and displaced over 10 million more. The U.S.-led intervention there didn’t officially begin until 2014, though the CIA began covertly training and arming Syrian rebels in 2013. Nevertheless, there’s no sign of democracy emerging from the ashes. Why, then, would anyone think America’s involvement is accomplishing anything except more war and death?

To make things look a bit friendlier, the intelligence community is shifting its stated strategy from “humanitarian” intervention to Iranian containment. According to a former U.S. military commander, the base they’re hoping to keep along Syria’s eastern border with Jordan “is a critical element to prevent Iran from establishing a ground line of communications from Iran through Iraq through Syria to southern Lebanon in support of Lebanese Hezbollah.” The al-Tanf base will help the U.S. assert self-defense, as the same commander explained: “When they [Iranian forces] come through, we’ve claimed, I think reasonably, that they’ve been threatening either U.S. forces or partner forces.”

It was bad reasoning that led the U.S. to intervene in Syria in the first place. Back in 2010, Hillary Clinton endorsed secret negotiations between Israel and the Syrian government to end Iran’s sway over Syria. Those talks failed, but when the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 came about in response to Assad’s brutality, the U.S. saw an opportunity to try and “solve” the problem of Iranian influence—through forced regime change cloaked in “humanitarianism.”

What started as a domestic civil war became an international conflict when regional Sunni allies along with Clinton pressured the Obama administration into aiding the anti-Assad efforts through covert CIA operations. This escalated the domestic struggle into a global super-powered proxy war between the U.S., Israel, and their Sunni allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) on the one hand, and Russia and its Shia ally, Iran, on the other. When the covert CIA support began, the anti-Assad Islamic State emerged and extended its influence into the Iraq conflict, tossing a wrench into Obama’s entire Middle East strategy.

Suddenly, the U.S. was funding radical jihadists in Syria in order to help topple Assad, while those same radicals were using U.S. arms against U.S. forces in Iraq. And when Obama launched an air campaign against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, American involvement became more needlessly intense. Since Trump announced that we were leaving Syria in December, that same air campaign has been heavily ramped up, laying waste to civilian areas.

It’s imperative that these strikes, along with the U.S. troop presence, come to an end. The president is going against the military establishment by stopping the Syrian intervention, which was never aimed at helping Assad’s victims but rather at containing Iran’s influence in the region via regime change. But for now, regime change is off the table, and the intelligence community is trying to shift the reason for staying in Syria. Instead of fighting militant groups, we are now told that America’s presence is needed to contain Iran. Well, at least they’re more honest than Clinton was.

The American presence required to fight militant groups has so far been justified under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Act. But remaining in Syria in order to contain Iran cannot be rationalized in the same way. The AUMF does not permit the U.S. to freely establish military bases across the globe in order to disrupt travel routes and easily attack state actors moving through them. Maintaining a base in Syria for this reason is a reckless policy, rooted in regional politicking instead of clear military objectives. Worse yet, it sets a terrible precedent for the sorts of military interventions that the AUMF can be used to justify.

Obama and Clinton didn’t recognize their own fatal conceit in Syria, but Trump has the opportunity. Instead of capitulating to the intelligence community, he should remain steadfast and follow through in his push to end America’s bloody and wasteful Syrian stint.

Cory Massimino is the senior academic programs coordinator at Students For Liberty, the mutual exchange coordinator at the Center for a Stateless Society, and a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on Twitter @corymassimino.