Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

End America’s Illegal Occupation of Syria Now

Our presence there is a violation of domestic and international law that's made a horrible civil war even worse.

Washingtonians pretend to be shocked by what President Trump does, but it’s Americans who should be shocked by what Washington does—such as illegally intervening in Syria’s civil war and occupying a third of that country. It’s time for Donald Trump to do the right thing and bring our troops home.

The fabled “Arab Spring” hit Syria in 2011. And as the Middle East’s autocracies wobbled, the Obama administration initially tagged President Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. But he refused to yield political power in the face of popular demonstrations.

Not everyone saw the protesters as harbingers of democracy. One Alawite with whom I spoke while visiting Syria last year said Assad’s opponents chanted, “Christians to Lebanon, Alawites to the grave.” The demonstrators’ desire to oust Assad evidently didn’t mean they desired a liberal Western-oriented democracy. Earlier in Beirut, I’d spoken with an anguished Christian aid worker from Syria who exclaimed, “You Americans have no idea what you are doing!”

Nevertheless, Washington decided that Assad had to go. And his regime, beset from every direction, tottered on the brink. Insurgents gained control of Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, from which they bombarded Syria’s capital.

Despite pressure to actively intervene against Assad, the Obama administration focused on aiding supposedly moderate insurgents, with little success. One program spent a half billion dollars to train fewer than threescore fighters. Radicals hid their views in order to receive arms from America; supposedly democratic forces fought with and sometimes surrendered to Islamists, along with their equipment.

Moreover, reported the New York Times: “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.”

One of the indirect beneficiaries of U.S. aid was Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. Noted National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty: “We also funded a group called Nour al-Din al-Zenki, until its members showed up on YouTube beheading a child, at which point the ‘moderate’ label no longer quite fit.”

With the war largely over and the much-weakened Assad government mostly in control, roughly 2,000 U.S. personnel occupy about a third of the country, mostly in the north working with Kurdish forces. At first, President Trump ordered the Americans home, but now hundreds or more will stay, according to his aides.

But for what? The goal of shielding civilians was undercut all along by fomenting civil war and the underwriting of insurgents. The president recently objected to Syria’s increasing military pressure on Idlib, the only area still held by insurgents (of a very nasty Islamist variety), because of the risk to civilians. However, Syria, backed by Russia, is determined to reconquer the one area hosting an active insurgency.

American officials recently pointed to the possible Syrian use of chemical weapons and threatened to “respond quickly and appropriately.” But boots on the ground won’t help. Moreover, bullets and bombs have killed far more people than chemical weapons.

Yet some administration officials would deny Damascus its oil and other resources in an attempt to pressure Assad from power, drive Iranian forces from Syria, thwart Russian objectives, protect the Kurds from Turkey, and stop an ISIS revival. The Syria Study Group, established by Congress to justify a permanent U.S. military presence, came up with even more bizarre objectives, such as helping locals handle Islamic State prisoners, “enabling civilian-led stabilization efforts,” and “countering the threat of terrorism, protecting a rules-based international order, and contributing to the security of key allies and partners.”

It’s a bizarre mishmash. Supporting “key allies and partners” should be the means, not the end, done to increase American security.

If the U.S. couldn’t drive Assad from power when his military was stretched thin while facing multiple insurgencies, a few hundred or thousand Americans won’t do so now. Moscow has been allied with Syria for decades and will not quit. The U.S. doesn’t need to permanently and illegally occupy another nation to help with reconstruction (sounds like a great job for the Europeans), handle ISIS detainees (cash subsidies might be a good alternative), and fight terrorism (such a rationale could justify occupying half of the globe). The civil war has already destroyed whatever rules applied to Syria. Further violating both domestic and international law by invading and dismembering a country is an odd way to support the “rules-based international order.”

Washington already defeated the Islamic State; Iraq and Syria, along with Iran, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates should be able to forestall an Islamist renewal. Moreover, U.S. war-making is likely to inflame the toxic passions and theologies that spawn jihadist crusades. The Syria Study Group envisions an essentially permanent occupation: it called for the “enduring defeat” of ISIS, which “depends on inclusive, responsive, and legitimate governance in the areas it once controlled,” a process that could “take decades.”

Reducing Syria’s cash flow mostly means intensifying the hardship facing residents desperate for reconstruction. Those Syrians will blame Washington for denying them needed funds, and Damascus would end up relying even more on Iranian and Russian aid. If starving Damascus promotes instability, it is more likely to undermine than promote democratic reforms.

The Syria Study Group complains that “current operations will not force all Iranian-backed forces from Syria,” but why is that Washington’s job? Iran’s presence has virtually nothing to do with American security. Iranians don’t need a “land bridge” to Syria and Lebanon when they have airplanes. Nor are the Kurds likely to act as America’s catspaw, confronting Iran for Washington’s ends. There is no way to hermetically seal off Syria from Iran without far more American troops.

Moreover, Iran, a long-time ally of Syria whose forces were invited in by the Syrian government, won’t be driven out by a few Americans seeking to multitask geopolitically. Excluding Tehran cannot be done absent full-scale war against or omnibus political settlement with Iran. A better bet would be Israel and Turkey striking a deal with Damascus and Russia, which have their own problems with Tehran’s ambitions.

Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, tasked with Syria by the State Department, recently announced that there was “a general agreement in principle on the pull back and on the safe zone” with Ankara and the Syrian Kurds, and that he believed coming talks have “a real chance.” However, important issues, including the zone’s control and the size and management of the Kurds’ arms, remain undecided. The Europeans apparently won’t be involved; more important, the Syrian government has not agreed to stand idle over the allies’ disposition of its territory.

Nor does the policy make sense. While the Syrian Kurds are liberal compared to others in the region, between half a million and a million Kurds effectively rule over 1.5 million Arabs. Guarding the Kurds means a permanent presence while confronting Turkey, which views Kurdish separatism as an existential threat, along with Syria itself, which fought an eight-year civil war to protect its territory, and Russia, which is committed to restoring Damascus’s authority and enhancing ties with Turkey. Ankara may be the most dangerous, having launched a major offensive, Operation Euphrates Shield, against Kurdish forces in early 2018. In doing so, it seized the city of Afrin and environs, and threatened to move on Manbij, where Americans are stationed alongside Kurds.

Although that crisis faded, more limited fighting has continued since, including a modest Turkish offensive in May in response to Kurdish attacks on nearby Turkish units. A more formal arrangement would be even more dangerous. Ankara cannot be trusted to control the zone. The Kurds could try to turn such a zone into a safe haven from which to strike at Turkish forces and their insurgent allies, which still occupy Kurdish territory.

Moreover, an American-guaranteed refuge would draw in insurgents defeated or displaced by Damascus seeking to continue their fight. Either Americans would have to fight and disarm them or Syria would have to respond, perhaps backed by Iran and Russia. There are few violence-free zones in the middle of a civil war.

Perhaps most important, though little discussed in Washington, is that occupying Syria militarily, for whatever purpose, is a violation of international and U.S. law. The land is indisputably Syria’s and the Constitution requires Congress to authorize war.

Syria is an extraordinary tragedy. Yet turning the Assad dictatorship into a liberal, humane democracy was always a long shot. Nor was Washington’s support for the insurgency benign: the Syria Study Group acknowledges that “al-Qaeda is in effective control of Idlib and retains the capacity to conduct external attacks”—yet warns against a Syrian attack on this enclave. The main achievement of Washington’s intervention has been to prolong one of the worst civil wars in modern times.

The best option now might be to reintegrate the Damascus government into the international order, trading restored relations and reconstruction aid for political reform. Part of that process could be encouraging a deal between the Assad government and Syria’s Kurds, respecting a degree of Kurdish autonomy while keeping the Turks out. That’s hardly ideal but it’s better than permanently entangling Washington in a frozen conflict not its own.

Either way, President Trump claims that he wants to bring U.S. troops home from Syria. He should do so. Now.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.