Home/Daniel Larison/The Absurdity and Futility of Our Syria Policy

The Absurdity and Futility of Our Syria Policy

The al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria. Credit: Public Domain

The new deployment in Syria will leave almost the same number of U.S. troops in the country as there were before the “withdrawal”:

Meanwhile, the first few hundred infantry troops, soon to be joined by mechanized troops in Bradley fighting vehicles and possibly a few tanks, have driven in from Iraq. Defense Department officials said the total number of American troops guarding the oil fields would be around 500.

When combined with the troops at Al-Tanf, that brings the number of American troops projected to be in Syria to near 900, a number that could easily rise if, as expected, the Islamic State begins to make a comeback.

“We’re under no illusion that they will go away because we killed Baghdadi,” said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, during a Pentagon news conference Wednesday. “Since it’s an ideology, you will never be able to stamp it out.”

These few sentences in the NYT report on the deployment sum up the absurdity and futility of the mission that these troops have been given. A few hundred troops are being sent to “guard” oil fields that belong to the Syrian government for the purpose of keeping the Syrian government from being able to use their own property, so there it seems as if U.S. troops stuck with this illegal and bizarre mission indefinitely. The troops that have been sent there also happen to be a National Guard unit that shouldn’t be there:

A smaller number of troops will remain at the pointless Tanf base as a token force just so that the administration can say that it is opposing Iranian influence in Syria. Neither one of these has anything to do with making the U.S. more secure, and neither one of them has ever been authorized by Congress. The unauthorized anti-ISIS mission that these two groups of soldiers are supposedly supporting also won’t end because, as Gen. McKenzie puts it, “you will never be able to stamp it out,” so their illegal military presence in Syria will continue because there will always be the possibility of a “resurgence.”

Killing Baghdadi is an operational success that doesn’t really change very much. Max Abrahms explains that his death doesn’t matter for the future of the group because he was a remarkably bad leader:

When you look scientifically at the history of militant groups, one thing becomes immediately clear about the Islamic State (ISIS): Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was one stupid leader. Baghdadi could have written a book called Rules for Rebels to Fail. Indeed, he did the exact opposite of what smart leaders have historically done to achieve their stated political goals.

In other words, eliminating such an incompetent leader is hardly a fatal blow to a group when he is the one who led them to ruin.

All of this demonstrates how foolish our Syria policy is in particular, and it also shines a light on our complete lack of strategy in countering terrorist groups. The U.S. can kill jihadist leaders and lots of their followers again and again, but a heavily militarized approach to counter-terrorism has caused terrorist groups to flourish and terrorist attacks to increase significantly over time. If it is impossible to “stamp it out” because it is an ideology, it doesn’t make any sense to devote enormous resources to a futile effort at stamping it out through force, especially when a militarized response produces more enemies than it can possibly eliminate. This approach has sometimes been likened to whack-a-mole, but that gives it too much credit. At least in whack-a-mole, the player isn’t responsible for killing innocent civilians and destabilizing entire regions along the way. Eighteen years since 9/11, the “war on terror” has succeeded mainly in spawning more and worse terrorist groups, and illegally keeping a few hundred troops in a country where they don’t belong won’t achieve anything worthwhile.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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