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America’s Creeping Regime Change in Syria

In eastern Syria last week, American air and ground forces attacked Syrian pro-government military units, killing roughly 100 people, including some Russian advisors [1]. U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Veale described [2] the attack as “taken in self-defense.”

“Self-defense”? Had the regime of Bashar al-Assad bombarded Boston Harbor? No, but it had attacked a base, long held by Syrian rebels, with U.S. military advisors present. Despite the tit-for-tat chronology here, it’s hard to see how Veale’s “self-defense” claim is tenable.

After all, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained [3] last month, the Trump administration has committed to an indefinite military presence of roughly 2,000 U.S. boots on the Syrian battlefield. Are these troops present at the behest of the host government? Certainly not. Has Congress ratified their deployment in some way? Guess again. Are they there preempting an imminent threat of attack on America? Nope. Are they under the mandate of a UN Security Council resolution? No.

In fact, the U.S. military presence in Syria has no legal authorization whatsoever. Those American forces are cooperating with Syrian rebels to, as Tillerson put it, “help liberated peoples” in territory outside Assad’s control “stabilize their own communities” and defend themselves against regime forces. This is, he added, “a critical step to creating the conditions for a post-Assad political settlement.”


Dispensing with the euphemistic flummery, U.S. forces are engaged in a kind of creeping regime change operation—the lessons of recent history be damned.

One might fairly argue that the Assad regime, in its brutality against its own people, long ago forfeited the sovereign right to defend its territory against an invading foreign army. Fine, but we should be clear that Washington, in responding to the lawlessness, is also acting lawlessly—hardly a lodestar mission of the liberal, rules-based world order America claims to lead, and, in the big picture, decidedly not a case of “self-defense.”

Quaint legalisms aside, the clash between U.S. and Syrian forces should make clear just how dangerous our military presence in Syria is. This particular incident, we can reasonably assume, didn’t escalate only because the regime is desperate to avoid escalation. Were they to counterattack, the Syrians surely know, the full might of America would come crashing down upon Damascus, and that would be the end of them all.

But that is by no means a reassuring “balance of terror,” the term nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter used [4] to describe the deterrence model of the Cold War’s mutually assured destruction. Indeed, the multi-sided chaos of the Syrian Civil War is neither balanced nor stable and the risk of escalation is very real. Should the actors in the next clash miscalculate, will the Russians defend their ally in Damascus before it falls, or will America’s “self-defense” spiral into the destruction of the regime? Will the resulting anarchy plunge us into a full-scale occupation? Will Turkey take advantage of the mayhem to rampage through Kurdish-held Syria? Will Iranian-backed militias still prioritize fighting Sunni extremist groups? If anything could reverse the defeat of the Islamic State, it is an escalation like this.

As with much of American foreign policy today, the threat to the United States in Syria is roughly proportional to the extent to which we choose to expose ourselves to it. None of the five missions Tillerson laid out for the U.S. military effort in Syria—to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda, usher in a post-Assad state, counter Iranian influence, facilitate the return of refugees, and free Syria of weapons of mass destruction—are vital to protect America’s wealth and physical security.

Nor are these low-cost, low-risk, or high-probability-success missions. And as everyone knows, the last thing America needs now is a new set of elective, hazardous, and unachievable war aims on the other side of the globe.

America has an interest in a stable Middle East, and thus in a stable Syria, but the notion that U.S. policy has contributed to that end is rather dubious. The Islamic State, which exacerbated the Syrian Civil War by orders of magnitude, is, after all, an outgrowth of America’s war in Iraq. And the U.S. and its allies encouraged the Syrian rebellion from early on, an effort that was not only a spectacular failure but also fostered quite the opposite of stability.

An enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy is that each intervention, whether it is seen to fail or succeed, eventually serves to justify further intervention. While it’s true that the Islamic State has been decimated, thanks in part to the collective destructive power of Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad, Moscow, Washington, and various Kurdish and Syrian militias on the ground, it has been accomplished at great cost in blood and treasure. The answer to this near-Pyrrhic victory is not for Washington to invent new missions that lack legal authorization or a plausible timeline of success, but instead to reckon with its own role in this interminable tempest and acknowledge the very real possibility that backing away may be in the best interest of America and of Syria.

John Glaser is director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "America’s Creeping Regime Change in Syria"

#1 Comment By PAX On February 14, 2018 @ 1:07 pm

Dear Mr. Glaser – What interest does America really have in the Middle East and why? Has this “real” interest been honestly explained to the U.S. public? This is a bold and unsubstantiated statement you make. Quite hollow, actually. Please defend. You speak about regime change – this is what is occurring in the U.S. outside of the electoral system. AKA as overly powerful lobbies – especially AIPAC.

#2 Comment By um what about On February 14, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

“Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad, Moscow, Washington, and various Kurdish and Syrian militias”

And Ankara. Turkey’s role was crucial, and, as usual, widely overlooked.

#3 Comment By Xenia Grant On February 14, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

I never thought I would say this, but Russia and the old USSR is right is supporting Bashar Assad (during the USSR time, Bashar’s father,Hafez). At least Russia has historical interests in that region, unlike the US. How I long for the days when Brezhnev was in power.

#4 Comment By Colonel Bogey On February 14, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

“The Trump administration has committed to an indefinite U. S. military presence of roughly 2,000 boots on the Syria battlefield.”

In December it was announced that we had about 2,000 troops in Syria. Is each man wearing only one boot?

#5 Comment By mohammad On February 14, 2018 @ 2:49 pm

War is what most Americans want! It is what most Americans love and admire, and it is the only thing which holdds Americans together.

#6 Comment By ESKL On February 14, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

With Assad, we have a known entity that represents what is left of Syria. Get rid of Assad, there’s unmanageable chaos and vacuum for decades potentially. Why some seem so eager for the latter option of getting rid of Assad hasn’t been honestly explained.

#7 Comment By LouisM On February 14, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

Its not the US that is interested in Syria. Its our ally Israel that is interested in Syria. Israel is afraid Syria will be an Iranian, Hezbollah, Hamas terrorist enemy state at its borders. Perhaps even lobbing missiles and arming Palestinians. I wont dispute there is cause for Israeli concern but not so much concern as to risk war between US and Russia.

If there is a war between the US and Russia, then there will be no hiding that the US is fighting a proxy war for Israel and Russia is fighting alongside Iran. Its a roll of the dice because a failed protracted war could backfire on US-Israeli relationships…if not with the govt then more a populist backlash against Israel.

Israel/US may be adamant in regime change but this is a Jimmy Carter moment. The US/Israel could wind up with something far more radical and fervent without Assad. Jimmy Carter had no idea he was creating an Islamic nation in Iran by forcing the Shah to flee the country. Netanyahoo and Trump may be similar victims of history if they unleash regime change…they may not be able to control what replaces it…and even if they were lulled into thinking they could…radical Islam could take hold 3-10 years down the road.

#8 Comment By Colin Chattan On February 14, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

Home run, Mr. Glaser.

#9 Comment By MountainSon On February 14, 2018 @ 6:30 pm

Well, who benefits from all the mayhem and instability? You know…

#10 Comment By Rob On February 14, 2018 @ 6:39 pm

In some ways the Trump administration’s complete and blatant disregard for legal justification for military action is refreshingly honest. Better that than stretching legal justification beyond all meaning as was done under Obama. Remember that the military action in Syria was originally justified under Obama as being in the collective defence of Iraq? That was good for a laugh. At least now it’s basically stated to be based on might is right, with the USA ruling by fiat.

#11 Comment By Former gop voter On February 14, 2018 @ 9:30 pm

Why did American Conservative censors remove comments where I dispair over the history of military conquest and aggression that the USA has perpetrated over the last 70’years or since the inception of our republic ??
I was foolish to think trump would be better on Syria issue than Clinton

#12 Comment By andy On February 14, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

Never have I taken less pleasure in saying, “I told you so.” Trump’s bellicosity was there for all to see from day one of his campaign.
Would our situation in Syria (let alone Korea) have been worse if “Warhalk” Clinton had been elected? It’s hard to say how it would- now both Syria and Afghanistan are going to be full of our children in uniform, fighting for….what?

#13 Comment By Michael Kenny On February 15, 2018 @ 7:57 am

“In fact, the U.S. military presence in Syria has no legal authorization whatsoever. Those American forces are cooperating with Syrian rebels to, as Tillerson put it, “help liberated peoples” in territory outside Assad’s control “stabilize their own communities” and defend themselves against regime forces. This is, he added, “a critical step to creating the conditions for a post-Assad political settlement.””
Isn’t that also true of Russian forces in Ukraine and doesn’t Putin use the same “euphemistic flummery” to justify his actions? And Putin is in Syria.

#14 Comment By b. On February 15, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

Redcoats “R” US.

#15 Comment By Bro. Overbite On February 15, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

“While it’s true that the Islamic State has been decimated, thanks in part to the collective destructive power of Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad, Moscow, Washington, and various Kurdish and Syrian militias on the ground, it has been accomplished at great cost in blood and treasure. “

And like a lot of our other Mideast “accomplishments”, it solves a problem that we ourselves created in the course of blundering around over there. At the point where you start congratulating yourself for mopping up the crap that you yourself left on the floor next to the toilet, things are pretty well totally out of control.

Why do we make it so easy for Putin to provoke us into deeper and deeper ME military commitments? Why do we let the Israelis shake us down for cash, spit in our face on the settlements issue, and then push us into wars that they never get around to helping us fight? Almost makes you think they’re working together … maybe that’s what the oft-reported “love affair” or “bromance” between Putin and Netanyahu is all about – a tag team that’s squeezing the stupid Americans like a lemon.

#16 Comment By bozhidar balkas On February 16, 2018 @ 8:24 am

No one is good says Luke in 18:19. All lie, saiz Ro 3:4.

So, Assad lies; isn’t good! But does he lie more or less or much less than Trump, Mattis, Putin or me?

Assad, i say, lies much more than me. As for Trump, he’s at the very extreme level of lying.

Nobody’s goo!!! I just add that everybody is fearful. Have the psychopaths noted these facts as early as ten k years ago?
And how about now? Do they [Congress, clergy] know it now?
Yes, they do, i say and know how to use it against us or for own benefit.

#17 Comment By thomas knyst On February 16, 2018 @ 8:54 am

All actions by the USA and/or Israel were clearly spelled out by the PNAC authors over a decade ago.

At the behest of Israel, the US will destroy all secular governments in the ME so that Israel will appear to be the most “sane” one. If Syria were to remain secular and peaceful, then eventually someone may petition that the Golan Heights be returned. If, however, Syria descends into lawless chaos (hopefully with an Islamic boogie man scare factor that plays well in Hollywood) then Israel will claim that they clearly need the Golan Heights forever.

This strategy for Israel has been applied many times; eg. when it created HAMAS as a foil for the PLO. PLO, with “even Christian members” was too secular an organization and did not have that required Islamic “scare” factor that a HAMAS would. Rinse and repeat

#18 Comment By rick On February 16, 2018 @ 10:54 am

Assad gave up his right to defend his country from an invading force because of his brutality to his own people? Seriously? Damn, if that were the case there would be a good number of countries we consider allies who would fall into that same category. And never mind that we incarcerate more people than anyone on the planet.

#19 Comment By bill the pill On February 16, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

I see an eventual false flag where a staged drone attack is traced back to the military base in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria and the attackers and base are destroyed by mass ICBM fusillade. Russia states terrorists eliminated, and apologizes for the death of those brave fighters that got too close to the action.

#20 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 17, 2018 @ 10:34 am

The MIC loves them their foreign wars. When Lockheed alone rivals the U.S. State Department in government funding, you know those CEOs are our real unelected government. There’s no election that can ever change that ascendency now. This arc of instability can only grow, either to the sought worldwide control of the planet under American empire, which then guarantees MIC profits on a colossal scale forever, or an instability that will mean deployment of nuclear arsenals. Those whom the gods would destroy for their hubris, first make mad.

#21 Comment By David Smith On February 17, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

“War is what most Americans want!”
As long as somebody else does the fighting and they don’t have to pay for it. Just another spectator sport. By the way, didn’t we outsource some of our prisoners to Syria for interrogation during the Iraq war? We didn’t seem to have a problem with Assad then.

#22 Comment By Cynthia McLean On February 17, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

The US is the master of Regime Change and for decades and decades has been interfering in the internal politics and elections of peoples around the world. That’s what makes me laugh, darkly, when I listen to all the US “existential” hype about Russian meddling. Geez, perhaps Russians do meddle, but it is only in emulation of US prowess. Even Trump, when asked about Russian meddling, responded “You don’t think we do that?”

#23 Comment By Kevin On February 17, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

The Neoconservatives! US pointless wars.

#24 Comment By Tariq On February 22, 2018 @ 4:29 pm

No one ever thought USrael’s serial regime changes were over. The policy didnt “creeping” change. It just continued from Iraq War. Syria is just the extension.
Same sponsors, same beneficiary

#25 Comment By Muriel On February 28, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

I remember Obama saying ‘there’s no American boots on the ground’. That’s true, in a way, because the boots were made in China!