The illegal U.S. military presence is going to continue indefinitely:
President Trump, who just five months ago said he wanted “to get out” of Syria and bring U.S. troops home soon, has approved a new strategy for an indefinitely extended military, diplomatic and economic effort there, according to senior State Department officials.
Although the military campaign against the Islamic State has been nearly completed, the administration has redefined its goals to include the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community.
The report describes this as a “shift” in U.S. policy, but what has happened is that the earlier commitment to an indefinite military presence in Syria never changed. Despite the personnel changes to Trump’s national security team, the policy is still more or less what it was when Tillerson outlined it in January. This was already apparent in remarks that the president made following his meetings with French President Macron in late April. Trump spoke then of having a “strong and lasting footprint” in Syria, and that is what we’re getting without any Congressional debate or authorization. Trump’s occasional talk about withdrawing “soon” was nothing more than talk, and in the end the administration’s Iran obsession won out just as I feared it would.
Five months ago, I said that Trump wouldn’t withdraw from Syria even though he would be right to do so:
I doubt very much that Trump will follow through on the suggested withdrawal for a few reasons. First, his incoming Secretary of State and National Security Advisor are sure to be vehemently opposed to doing this, and Trump is more malleable than clay when the people around him know how to flatter him and speak to him in terms he understands [bold mine-DL]. Second, Trump fetishizes looking “tough” and hates appearing “weak,” and the foreign policy “Blob” will work overtime to make sure that he thinks a decision to leave Syria (the correct and relatively courageous decision) would be the latter….Third, hostility to Iran is one of the few constants in Trump’s foreign policy, so we have to assume that when staying in Syria is presented to him that way he will acquiesce in staying. Trump thinks that Obama was too accommodating to Iran, and he is determined to do the opposite of whatever he thinks Obama did. Finally, Trump has proven that he is a pushover for the Saudis and Israelis, and both governments have said that they want the U.S. to stay for a long time. Disregarding these clients’ preferences is what Trump thinks Obama would do, and so he won’t blow them off as he should.
The driving force behind this policy is the fixation on Iran. The administration is wedded to this bizarre idea that all Iranian forces have to be expelled from Syria, as if it were up to the U.S. whether the forces of Syria’s main regional ally get to stay in Syrian territory. Trump has tried to enlist Russia in the effort to expel Iranian forces from Syria, but Russia wants no part of this and couldn’t do this even if they wanted.
As I’ve said many times before, an open-ended military mission to police part of Syria and oppose Iranian influence is dangerous, unnecessary, and not in the American interest. It exposes American soldiers to unacceptable risks for the sake of unachievable goals that have nothing to do with U.S. security. It potentially risks escalation with one or more foreign governments, one of which is a nuclear-armed major power, and it prolongs a military presence in another country’s territory in flagrant violation of both U.S. and international law. The U.S. has no need to bring about an “Iranian departure” from Syria, and short of war against the Syrian government and its allies it is extremely unlikely that Iran will withdraw its forces from the soil of its sole ally. The U.S. has no right to keep troops in Syria, Congress has never authorized it, and there is no conceivable way to claim that our forces in Syria are defending the United States or our treaty allies.