Trump’s Non-Policy In Syria Is Going To Get Americans Killed

Make a decision already, Mr. President
Smoke rises following a Syrian government air strike on rebel positions, in eastern Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Smoke rises following a Syrian government air strike on rebel positions, in eastern Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

There are hundreds — perhaps close to a thousand — U.S. soldiers in Syria. They’re usually not involved in direct fighting, though some of them are providing fire support for American proxies like the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are busy capturing the Islamic State’s capital, Raqqa. That’s the big U.S. mission there — to degrade and destroy ISIS, just as it was under Obama.

Except there’s one key difference. While the Obama administration was obsessed with keeping force minimal and avoiding direct conflict with the Russians, the Iranians, the Assadists, or their allies, the Trump administration seems to have given local commanders carte blanche to do whatever they need to achieve their short-term objectives.

That’s resulted in a lot of near-misses and dangerous moments. While the anti-ISIS job in Iraq is pretty straightforward, the campaign in Syria is much, much more complicated. No one doubts that Iraq’s central government will at least nominally rule Mosul once the city falls. But just who will control Raqqa? Will it be America’s Kurdish/Arab allies in the SDF who are, after all, doing all the heavy fighting? Will the Turkish army, situated not far north, get a piece of the pie as a NATO ally? And what about the Assadists, who still claim all of Syria?

When the U.S. shot down a Syrian air force jet, it was because the Assadists were bombing SDF positions near Raqqa — something that, to the Assadists, is a reasonable thing to do, since the SDF, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Idlib province rebels are all categorically traitors as far as Damascus is concerned. But American commanders weren’t about to let their hard-built anti-ISIS campaign, now finally steamrolling the so-called caliphate, be threatened by the petty ambitious of Bashar al-Assad. Apparently ad hoc, the U.S. shoot down was a tactical rather than strategic response.

Meanwhile, Iranian and Assadist forces advancing on the Iraqi frontier at al-Tanf got hit by the Americans as well.

Once more, there was nothing from the White House about a policy shift indicating America was doing anything more than letting local commanders call the shots. For the boots on the ground, that’s probably a relief — American troops complained quite a lot about the Obama-era rules of engagement. Yet from a geostrategic standpoint, calling down unlimited bombing runs accomplishes little and threatens a lot.

After the downing of the Syrian jet, the Russians reacted by saying they’d down any U.S. jets that got too close to Syrian forces — something that’s almost assuredly going to happen as American and Russian proxies take ground ever closer to one another. Already the Assadist army is on the outskirts of Raqqa province.

The entire affair reeks of mission creep. Local commanders have all the incentive in the world to take ground and win battles — that’s what they do. To secure themselves, they seek more ground and more victories. Since the Trump administration seems to have no plan for what to do with Syria, besides carry on with the parts of the Obama plan that were aggressive, it’s inevitable that U.S. and Russian forces will end up in a dangerous situation.

But that’s the good news: the Russians and Americans don’t want to fight one another over Syria. The bad news is that both the Iranians and the Assadists are more than happy to take the U.S. on.

After all, the Iranians supplied much of the Shi’a anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq for years, and Iranian hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard are looking for ways to undermine the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who recently won an election promising to open the Islamic Republic up further to foreign investment. There’s no better way to shut that door than to stir up a violent confrontation with the United States, even if Iran loses the battle.

The more the U.S. edges into a deeper war in Syria with no plan as to end it, the more opportunity there will be for anti-U.S. forces — from Iran and Assad to al-Qaeda and the remnants of ISIS — to strike. This is a smaller scale of Vietnam all over again, with even less clarity of purpose. While at least the U.S. wanted to stop Communism back then, it’s not clear what, if anything, the United States wants out of its new war in Syria, besides the ability for Trump to harrumph about much he’s bombing terrorists.

Colin Powell’s famous Powell Doctrine stated that the U.S. should only go to war with overwhelming force and only with clear interests at stake. Syria has always been a muddled mishmash of American geopolitical interests, a civil war it could take or leave until ISIS came along and began beheading Americans on camera. Now the lack of focus and force will almost surely paint targets on the backs of American soldiers.

News // Donald Trump / Middle East / Politics / Syria