AMU Homeland Security Opinion

Military Action and the Long-Term Strategy for the US in Syria

By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

For the second time in a year, President Trump took military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own people. However, the U.S.’s long-term strategy for moving forward in Syria remains unclear.

The Trump administration is recalibrating Syrian policy as it relates to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, Trump should be mindful of what Winston Churchill once said: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

Army General David Petraeus posed a question when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in early 2003: “How does this war end?” For the past 15 years, the U.S. is no closer to the answer in Iraq, let alone Syria.

Historically, the U.S. has pursued a strategy of winning by military means. However, U.S. government leaders should focus instead on a strategy of shaping peaceful resolutions that secure the strategic objectives the U.S. ultimately is trying to establish.

What Is the Syrian Strategy Now?

President Trump now deals with another chemical weapons attack by Assad against his own people and a military response aimed at punishing Assad. But is the Trump administration focusing on the right strategic objectives in Syria or is the debate only about how and when to extricate the U.S. from Syria?

The situation in Syria has perplexed U.S. national security policymakers since the civil war began in 2011. President Obama never provided any strategic strategy for Syria after issuing his famous statement, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way…For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Since that pronouncement, the situation in Syria has become even more complicated. In 2012, Obama issued his famous “red line” pronouncement: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

A year later, Obama failed to act when Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. The president dithered and punted the decision to Congress.

Obama’s Weak Policy Allowed Russian Entry into Middle East

Obama’s indecisiveness sent a signal to Moscow that allowed Russia back into the Middle East for the first time in 40 years. The lack of commitment by the U.S. sent a chilling signal to our allies that the United States had retreated from its commitments in the region. It also permitted Russia and Iran to further shore up the Assad regime.

President Trump inherited a difficult situation in Syria. But so far, he has not provided any clarity about what U.S. strategy should be.

Prior to the latest chemical attack, Trump announced an “immediate-to-soon” departure of U.S. troops from Syria. That statement was based on his belief that the U.S. had accomplished its objective of defeating ISIS and there was no strategic rationale for remaining. This policy contradicts the thinking of Trump’s military commanders who believe it wiser to delay a U.S. pullout from Syria.

Previous History of US Withdrawals from Foreign Nations

History has shown that there are consequences for early withdrawals, such as the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that was completed in 2011. Ranj Alaaldin, Visiting Fellow and Middle Eastern expert at the Brookings Institute, notes that withdrawals leave a void that can be filled by America’s enemies.

Iran capitalized on the space left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which proved to be critical to Iran’s dominance in Syria. Iraq was a crucial transit point that reinforced the Assad regime with substantial arms and tens of thousands of powerful Iraqi Shiite militias, who are now the most dominant force on the ground.

Also, the power vacuum caused by the U.S. exit resulted in the marginalization of Arab Sunnis and Kurds. It intensified ethnic and sectarian tensions that enabled the emergence of ISIS in 2014.

Other Middle Eastern Countries Too Weak to Fight Iran without US Help

Any premature U.S. withdrawal from Syria will only further cement Russia’s place in the Middle East. It will also embolden Iranian hegemony, as many countries in the region are too weak to confront Iran without U.S. leadership and security assurances.

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted in a commentary, “Syria: When and How Does This War End,” that punishing Assad in itself “will not address the core strategic objectives for either the war in Syria and Iraq or fighting terrorism. It will do nothing to shape a stable peace that serves U.S. strategic interests, the interests of our Arab strategic partners and Israel, or the critical needs of the Syrian people. It is not even a debate over when the war ends, simply a debate over when the U.S. should leave Syria.”

Military Commanders Understand Syria, but Does Trump?

Military commanders understand the critical strategic parameters for the United States in the region, which include:

  • Threats posed by Iran
  • The continued threats from extremism and terrorism
  • The security of our Arab partners and Israel
  • The continued flow of petroleum exports from the Middle East

Three of the seven economic chokepoints in the world are located in the Middle East. Any disruption there will greatly affect the U.S. economy, even though we now receive less energy from this region.

As the U.S. moves forward from the recent military operations against Assad, it must factor in how to shape a workable peace in the Middle East. That will have longer-lasting effects than just focusing on military solutions for Syria.

Glynn Cosker is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. In addition to his background in journalism, corporate writing, web and content development, Glynn served as Vice Consul in the Consular Section of the British Embassy located in Washington, D.C. Glynn is located in New England.

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