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Trump Can Win in Syria

Don't trade tactical success for strategic failure.
April 3, 2019
Trump Can Win in Syria
An explosion rocks the Syrian city of Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by ISIS on October 20, 2014. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

Good news! The Islamic State has been officially defeated and our troops are coming home. And while that’s only half-true, it’s not a spin. ISIS has lost all of its controlled territories. But it has lost neither its will to fight, nor its fighters, nor its ability to recruit. In other words, America has handed the Islamic State a conventional defeat, but the ability of ISIS to wage irregular warfare remains.

And if the United States leaves the theater, there is a chance that ISIS could move to reclaim its lost territories.

In the meantime, the Trump administration has announced that it is leaving Syria. But not really. Maybe.

It would be tragic if America managed to find defeat from what has been an impressive strategic victory.

There have been problems with the United States’ campaign against ISIS from the beginning. Neither the Obama nor the Trump administrations ever declared and communicated clear goals in Syria to the American people. The campaign in Syria has not received Congressional authorization beyond the Authorization for the Use of Military Force more than 17 years ago, which was passed for a completely different campaign. And finally, the mission in Syria has changed from counterterrorism, to containment of Iran, to protection for the Kurds.

Now, the United States seems to have decided that it can unwind the campaign without having secured any of these objectives.

What gave the Islamic State the opportunity to gain territory in Iraq and Syria was the weakness of the Iraqi military, the chaos in Syria, and the illegitimacy of the Assad regime. None of those factors have changed. Syria is more chaotic than it was in 2014 and as illegitimate as it has ever been. Iran remains in Syria, and if the United States leaves with Assad still in power, Iran will have achieved its greatest military objective since the end of its war with Iraq. And the only thing between Turkey and Assad rolling over their Kurdish enemies is American protection. (As a bonus, American withdrawal will also be a foreign policy victory for Russia, whose campaign in Syria is deeply unpopular in the midst of their economic struggles.)

In the National Security Strategy (NSS) that the Trump administration published, the authors noted that “[e]ven after the territorial defeat of ISIS and al-Qa’ida in Syria and Iraq, the threat from jihadist terrorists will persist.” Among the priority actions in the Middle East which the NSS outlined were seeking “a settlement to the Syrian civil war that sets the conditions for refugees to return home and rebuild their lives in safety” and neutralizing “Iranian malign influence.”

Those should continue to be our goals.

It’s important to understand that the current state of play is bad for our adversaries. America is winning. Jihadi-Salafists are either in hiding or have left Syria. The Islamic State holds no territory. With a 3-digit inflation rate and an imploding economy, Iran is spending scarce resources in Syria, which threatens the stability of the regime in Tehran. (Iranian protestors chant “no to Syria, no to Lebanon, do something for us.”) And our allies, the Kurds, are not fearing for their lives on a daily basis. Those are all significant achievements and they have come at a relatively low cost in both American blood and treasure.

But none of them will be even semi-permanent unless there is a legitimate government in Syria with meaningful reconstruction underway.

In 2014, when the Islamic State was on the march, Fox News could not show this clip of President Bush often enough, with the former president warning that a premature withdrawal from Iraq before the country was ready to provide its own security would mean the return of terrorists and an eventual return for America. Five years later, that warning applies just as well to Syria. Withdrawal before the completion of objectives is a recipe for repeat action.

In his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama liked to boast that “I ended the war in Iraq.” President Trump may be hoping to make the same case about Syria in 2020.

But Obama’s withdrawal was premature and the cost of his rush to declare victory was the return of terrorists. President Trump need not make the same mistake.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.