The Trump administration is scrambling for a Syria policy for the post-Islamic State period. The job has been left to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who used an appearance at the Hoover Institution to deliver the beginnings of what the administration hoped would be a coherent, pragmatic, and results-oriented Syria strategy.
There was only one, big problem however — the speech was neither coherent, pragmatic, nor realistic given the present situation Syria finds itself.
If Tillerson’s address truly represents President Trump’s thinking, the administration will soon be engaging in a complete change of mission in Syria. The U.S., Tillerson said, will now expand its attention beyond killing ISIS to aiding in basic reconstruction and stabilization efforts; speeding up a virtually nonexistent Syrian peace process; countering further Iranian entrenchment; and ensuring Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.
“We understand that some Americans are skeptical of continued involvement in Syria and question the benefits of maintaining a presence in such a troubled country,” Tillerson admitted. “However, it is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria…”
The administration could have made a more convincing case to the public if they just answered some very basic but critical questions. Fortunately, it’s not too late for the White House to address them:
1. On what legal authority? Since the counter-ISIS military campaign in Iraq and Syria began on Aug. 8, 2014, the executive branch has cited the 2001 authorization for the use of military force against al Qaeda as the domestic statutory basis for the operation. The fact that ISIS and al Qaeda were intense antagonists on the ground in Syria, with both groups jockeying for territory and influence within the wider Sunni jihadist universe, didn’t particularly matter to the U.S. Congress.
Not even the most strident proponent of executive power and prerogative would have the gravitas to argue that a war resolution passed a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — one that focused on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban but has since resembled an overstretched and flaccid rubber band — would apply to what Iran is purporting to do in Syria in the year 2018. Tillerson conveniently ignored the legal question, one Congress has an institutional, constitutional, and moral obligation to press.
2. Will a U.S. troop presence in Syria really bolster a political solution? Tillerson’s suggestion that the U.S. military will remain in Syria as long as it takes to accelerate the United Nations-facilitated peace process towards a future government without Bashar Assad is a curious one to make. The linkage is dubious and is based on the assumption that the Assad regime will agree to negotiate its own demise simply because U.S. troops are stationed on Syrian soil.
Advocates of Tillerson’s approach claim that an indefinite American presence in the east of Syria will afford Washington with leverage on the ground and additional tools to rejuvenate the Geneva peace process. Yet they rarely explain the basis for their confidence that a U.S. deployment will have any impact at all on Assad’s behavior.
Why, for instance, are they so confident that Assad, who has been intransigent at best during every political negotiation that has occurred over the previous seven years, would be any more open to handing his opponents political concessions now that a few thousand American soldiers are sitting in a few desert outposts far from regime-controlled territory? American soldiers, after all, have been operating on Syrian soil for years now, and the mere presence of the U.S. military has had no effect on the wider dynamics of the civil war or on the willingness of Damascus to negotiate in a serious way.
Indeed, if the removal of U.S. troops from Syria is tied to the formation of a new Syrian government free of Assad and his cronies, American taxpayers will be funding this deployment for a very, very long time.
3. Who will pay for reconstruction, and how is this not another nation-building project? “[S]tabilization initiatives, in liberated areas,” Tillerson said, “are essential to making sure that life can return to normal and ISIS does not re-emerge. Stabilization initiatives consist of essential measures such as clearing unexploded landmines left behind by ISIS, allowing hospitals to reopen, restoring water and electricity services, and getting boys and girls back in school.”
While Tillerson may be right that this type of work is far below the grandiose nation-building projects Washington engaged in during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, even these initiatives will cost a considerable amount of taxpayer money. The State Department is reportedly preparing to spend $400 million on these tasks, on top of the $500 million the Pentagon plans to devote towards continuing the training, equipping, and funding of SDF fighters in the field.
Whether this money includes the building of a separate 30,000-member force to patrol the Syrian-Iraqi and Syrian-Turkish borders is anyone’s guess, but one could easily imagine Washington writing billion-dollar checks to this stabilization initiative for years on end. It should be noted that America’s original objectives in Afghanistan, too, were at first limited to small-scale assistance to an interim Afghan national government — aid that, 16 years and tens of thousands of casualties later, has reached such fiscal heights that it will be years before the U.S. government can issue a full, accurate expense report.
With a $20 trillion and counting national debt, the United States literally can’t afford to go down that same path again. The Trump administration must provide a detailed explanation to the public as to why they — rather than America’s wealthy European or Gulf Arab allies, which have even more at stake in Syria than the U.S. ever will — will be sending their hard-working taxpayer dollars to a conditions-based (read: unending) commitment in Syria. The White House is nowhere near making that case; indeed, administration officials haven’t even made their opening arguments yet.
From what Secretary Tillerson presented this week, the Trump administration’s Syria policy is a skeleton with very little meat on the bones. His speech provided some additional detail, but at the cost of clarity. Instead of an honest assessment about what can be accomplished in a country that still remains in the throes of violent conflict, the public were given a list of hopes and aspirations detached from the real world. Worse still, they were left to wonder over the very real possibility that their sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers in uniform will be ordered into another indefinite deployment — held hostage to an unworkable strategy devised from the policymakers back in Washington that doesn’t seem to be the final product of a tough inter-agency debate.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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