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Tillerson Lays the Ground for Endless War in Syria

Speaking at the Hoover Institute, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out [1] the Trump administration’s vision for “a stable, unified, and independent Syria, free of terrorist threats and free of weapons of mass destruction.” Such a vision sounds a lot like what previous administrations said about Iraq and Afghanistan, which should be cause for worry. Afghanistan has become America’s longest running war and we still have troops in Iraq more than a decade after what some war supporters said would be a “cakewalk [2].”

Moreover, a long-term U.S. military presence in both those countries has not made them stable or unified—and nothing indicates they will be anytime soon. Nonetheless, Secretary Tillerson made clear that “[t]he United States will maintain a military presence in Syria” that is “conditions-based.”

But why commit to do in Syria what we haven’t been able to accomplish in either Afghanistan or Iraq? This is simply a prescription for another forever war.

The main reason we should employ American military force is that our national security is directly threatened. To be sure, Bashar al-Assad is an unsavory, odious dictator and a thug. He is certainly a threat to Syrians who oppose his rule. However, the regime in Damascus is not a direct military threat to the United States. Syria has no military capability to attack America. And to the extent that U.S. forces could be threatened by the Syrian military, it’s only because they’re within range of their weapons. According [3] to a December 2017 Pentagon report, the U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria.


The fact that the Russians intervened on behalf [4] of Assad should also give us pause. Why run the risk of direct confrontation with Russia—the only country in the world with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States—over a regime in Damascus that does not pose a threat to our national security?

Tillerson called out both ISIS and al Qaeda as threats in Syria that the United States must counter. However, to the extent they do pose a threat, it’s largely to local and regional actors. As such, combatting them should be up to Syria’s neighbors, which have more at stake and more to lose than we do.

Instead, we seem intent on pursuing regime change. Without uttering those exact words, Tillerson made clear that removing Assad from power was the desired end game by declaring that one of Washington’s conditions for Syria is “the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime is resolved through a UN-led political process prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state.” Even more pointedly: “A stable, unified, and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership.”

Apparently, the Trump administration hasn’t learned the lesson of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Disposing of dictators doesn’t lead to liberty and democracy in the region, but rather creates a vacuum for other extremist groups to fill.


Let us not forget that ISIS is a product of regime change. Deposing Saddam Hussein created the conditions that gave rise to al Qaeda in Iraq, which, in turn, morphed into ISIS. Moreover, almost certainly U.S. troops would remain in a post-Assad Syria—just as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq—which would sound a rallying call to radical Islamic elements and turn the American occupier into a target.

Where there is regime change, there will be nation building, something Tillerson tried to eschew and President Trump criticized on the campaign trail and in his new National Security Strategy [5], which claimed that “Stabilization is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction.” But Tillerson’s language for establishing peace and stability in Syria is nation building by any other name: “stabilization initiatives in liberated areas are essential to making sure that life can return to normal.” Those initiatives include “essential measures such as clearing unexploded land mines left behind by ISIS, allowing hospitals to reopen, restoring water and electricity services, and getting boys and girls back in school.”

Perhaps most importantly, Tillerson made no mention of the potential cost of regime change and nation building in Syria. According [6] to one estimate, the total tab for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $5 trillion to date. There’s no reason to believe repeating those actions in Syria will be any less expensive. And why should the American taxpayer have to shoulder yet another burden?

President Trump says his National Security Strategy [7] puts “America First.” Yet the administration’s Syria policy so far has done anything but.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism. [8]

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Tillerson Lays the Ground for Endless War in Syria"

#1 Comment By Richard L Harrell On January 30, 2018 @ 3:01 am

The United States military has no authority from anyone to be in Syria, and it is there illegally. If we get into a war there it will be because of our own lawless behavior. Let’s hope not, but we are still being governed by complete and total imbeciles, with no respect for the law whatsoever. But then I sometimes forget that we go into the Middle East as agents of the State of Israel, who wants to prevail over all other nations there. GOD HELP US!

#2 Comment By furbo On January 30, 2018 @ 6:05 am

Syria under Assad was very stable. They weren’t democratic, or particularly friendly to us but they weren’t a threat to us nor to Israel. Their citizens lived in an autocratic police state, but they didn’t deal with the unhinged terror of the Hussein regime and as long as you didn’t jump up on a platform and start railing against the government you could go about your business and become a farmer/doctor/soldier…whatever. Russia has vital national interests in Syria that are served by strong stable government. Let them handle it.

#3 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 30, 2018 @ 10:20 am

“But why commit to do in Syria what we haven’t been able to accomplish in either Afghanistan or Iraq?” Because Putin is irreversibly bogged down in Syria, just as the Soviets were in Afghanistan! And the US has to destroy Putin before he destroys US credibility as the unchallenged global hegemon, which in its turn will probably cause the dollar to lose its status as world reserve currency. That will probably bring the whole US “business model” crashing down, leading to a Soviet-style implosion of American society. The neo-Leninists might like the sound of that but it won’t be fun for most people.

#4 Comment By Daniel On January 30, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

I am so sick of the self righteous denunciations of Assad. Give me a break. What would Obama have done if HIS regime had been under attack throughout the nation by vicious, head chopping Islamic savages? Do we really think he wouldn’t be willing to kill innocents to “root out pockets of terror”? We know he wouldn’t flinch for we know he has killed many innocents with his drone strikes. And Trump most certainly wouldn’t hesitate to kill many innocents to save himself and the ruling class from violent overthrow. We should be kissing Assad’s feet for standing up to the Western, Israeli and Gulf state backed savages that have been literally destroying his nation. Count me as a fan of Assad! And of Putin as well for helping him to defeat ISIS and AQ groups in Syria.

#5 Comment By b. On January 30, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

“Russia – the only country in the world with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States”

It would appear that China’s restraint in pursuing only “minimum means of reprisal” is becoming a problem. Does China need more nukes to be safe?

#6 Comment By Craig Sams On January 30, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

The Muslim Brotherhood have been trying to turn secular Syria into an Islamic State since they capture Hama to be their Caliphate capital in 1982. The Syrian Government has kept a lid on them ever since, with the total support of Syria’s Christians, Jews, Alawites, Ismailis, Kurds, Druze, Shia, moderate Sunni and Armenian Catholics. Nobody wants their head chopped off. The whole thing could have been resolved in 2013 if the US backed rebels hadn’t insisted that Assad step down before they would negotiate. Trump, bless him, cut off funding by the CIA for ‘moderate’ rebels, most of whom either defected with their weapons to ISIS or crossed into Turkey and emigrated westwards. Moscow is the ‘vatican’ of the Eastern Orthodox Church, so they have a duty also to support their co-religionists in the founding homeland of Christianity.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 30, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

In reference to his speech —-

Ohhh brother. The number of roving cogs, and valves are mind numbing. So we are back to square with regime change — I am going to need new irons to get the creases out of the presidents suits every day.

I wholly agree. It starts withe respecting the sovereignty of other states. And our presence in Syria is just wrong. If we are really afraid of Syria, then why expend our money, resources and effort when Russia and Syria are capable and accomplishing the same goal? Strategically it makes no sense. We could accomplish the same task by getting two for the price of nothing.

I love Sec Rice, but she knee deep in the quag and if she wants to lay she will have to continue her role as supporter — though I suspect that she has some reservations —

If we are really concerned about Iran and I can see why we would be, Then we shore up those states in the region that have similar concerns — states besides Israel. That’s the counter that makes sense. I am not sure what our financial stake is in the region that’s worth getting all these ducks in a row, themselves vying with each other and no real goals for democratic governance, so it’s possible that I am off the wall —

As for American values — ahem, which ones

1. transgender politics
2. homosexual and heterosexual equity — my
heterophobia is showing.
3. female heads of mosques
4. sex drugs and rockn roll – ok right opium dens
that sounds in line
5. women;s sufferage
6. trigger warnings and “meetoo” agendas
7. regime change for better muslims society
8. white IQ empowerment
9. self determination — at the point of a gun
hardly seems right
10. Gender equity in Mosques

What;s painful to me is that what constitutes american values used to be something I could articulate quite smoothly. the natural rights of man endowed by a creator – truth, justice and the american way — honor, integrity, duty to god and country embrace of family, honoring parents, the constitution . . . freedom . . .

Here’s one: me listening to Sec rice expel her disappointments — though I am not sure how to translate that into middle eastern speak for a better way of life dictated by me.

And for all the bravado and high mindedness of interventionists. they are simply unwilling to use the kind of brutal force it would actually take to come any where near close to remodeling a middle eastern state into a western style democracy.

our entire way of life precludes us from so engaging because unprovoked force is simply unjustified. Supposedly we fought a war to make the case. And therein may lie the problem — we are founded on a violence we didn’t need to get a life that was our destiny anyways as “free independent people”

I almost choke on the notion, given our current state. A bit too politically incorrect

#8 Comment By David Smith On January 30, 2018 @ 6:43 pm

Check me if I’m wrong, but during the Iraq war didn’t we outsource some of our prisoners to Syria to be interrogated? I don’t recall having any problems with Assad then.

By the way, what ever happened to America First?

#9 Comment By Dennis Tuchler On January 30, 2018 @ 10:43 pm

If the USA left Syria, it would be Russia’s and Iran’s problem. Our access to oil and gas would not be affected. The only danger posed by our leaving Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan would be to Israel.

#10 Comment By KA On January 31, 2018 @ 4:55 am

“Bashar al-Assad is an unsavory, odious dictator and a thug. He is certainly a threat to Syrians who oppose his rule. ”

So is the US. Its a threat to each and every country that wants to chart it’s own economic and foreign policies . And it is pretty odious .Just ask the allies and the foes of the US .

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 31, 2018 @ 7:57 am

correction: I love Sec Rice, but she’s knee deep in the quag and if she wants to play she will have to continue her role as supporter — though I suspect that she has some reservations —
“The only danger posed by our leaving Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan would be to Israel.”

I am not convinced that either Iran or Syria ha any real designs on attacking Israel and neither does russia.

#12 Comment By rta On January 31, 2018 @ 10:06 am

“Donald Trump is an unsavory, odious, wannabe dictator and a thug. He certainly is a threat to Americans who oppose his rule”