President Trump did the wise thing by moving 50 soldiers out of the way of tens of thousands of invading Turks. There can be no doubt that the situation in Northern Syria involving Turkey, the Kurds, and Syria is messy, complicated, and potentially costly. The only questions are for whom, as well as what is the role of the United States.
Regarding the problem with the Turks and the Kurds, we have to realize a certain reality: the Turks and Kurds were fighting before we arrived in Syria … or even Iraq. They were fighting while we were there. And they will be fighting after we leave. The only question is what day we leave.
If that is true, why would we stay one day longer than we need to? Whose son or daughter should risk their life? Whose taxpayer funds should go to policing this area?
I say not mine. And not yours, either.
We are in our current position because our well-intentioned policies have turned out to be just plain bad decisions. Our military interventions in the Middle East have led to more chaos, not less, and more terrorism, not less. The foreign policy swamp — Republicans and Democrats — have over-militarized our foreign policy; they have an inexplicable need to see an existential threat to our country behind every rock.
But there is a way we could all possibly look at this in a new way, together. I offer that we take a collective deep breath and rationally try to find a way forward. A way out of these quagmires. A way to secure our interests. A way to return to true leadership in the world. A way to lead by example through influence and not bayonets. A way to concentrate more on diplomacy and less on deployments.
We went into Syria, sideways, on the pretext of going after ISIS, but the war caucus, led by Lindsey Graham, saw an opportunity to expand our mission into nation-building. President Trump, though, was clear from the beginning. His intention was to defeat ISIS. While the president’s mission was clear, he did, however, keep U.S. troops in Syria without the congressional authorization the Constitution requires.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and the neocons, however, have always had more ulterior motives. The neocons want Assad gone and a U.S.-guarded homeland for the Syrian Kurds. They opine that ISIS will return if we don’t stay forever (their same argument for eternal occupation of every place on the planet that harbors radical Islamists).
The neocons also claim the Kurds will release the ISIS prisoners. (This claim is absurd, as the brutality of ISIS would immediately fall on the people of Syria). The Kurds would be insane to release the ISIS prisoners, as they would be the first victims. In fact, no country in this five-sided war wants to deal with ISIS again.
We are at a place where our strategic objectives have been confused. We are no longer aligning our ends, ways, and means to reach a desired end state. If we are completely honest, we don’t really have an achievable end state.
This is a growing problem in our military adventures around the world because we have gone beyond the typical defined mission for our armed forces: winning a war, then leaving.
Even the military will tell you there is no achievable military goal in Syria. Yet, we are still there. The neocons are quick to say we have a vital national security interest in Syria. Really? If so, state it. If so, debate it on the Senate floor. Our Founding Fathers defined a path for our nation to go to war, and that path must include a constitutional debate and a declaration of war.
The neocons are partnered now with the liberal Clinton establishment in bashing the president and loudly saying we should stay in Syria. But if these loudmouths came to Congress as the Constitution requires, who would they declare war on? Syria? Turkey? Russia? Iran? Our previous ally, the Free Syrian Army?
Ousting Assad and establishing a Jeffersonian democracy (or even a Californian democracy) in Syria is clearly beyond what we as a nation should be willing to do. Thucydides said nations go to war for “Fear, Honor, and Interest.” Unfortunately, we have clouded interest, are irrational about fear, and dwell too heavily on honor. We need to realign our attitude to return to the more traditional American foreign policy of strength through restraint.
I will not attempt to justify Turkey’s perceived, real, or politically motivated security concerns that have led them to conduct their current operations. If asked by their government, I would urge them to stop immediately and use diplomacy, with our assistance.
At the very least, I would insist they show restraint in their actions and make sure they were operating well inside the law of armed conflict. I would also argue for the Kurds to show similar restraint in any form of reprisals against the Turks. I don’t advocate for the needless use of military force by any country, including my own. But this current battle is a symptom of a bigger problem that I hope our country can find a way to solve.
How do we reach an end state that meets our security needs as well as finds an end to the on-going tragedy? Unemotionally, I offer the following broad outline of a strategy that will hopefully get us to that end state.
- U.S. forces in the region must be repositioned outside of the battle zone. Our few forces near the border are at risk and serve no realistic deterrent. They aren’t enough to stop the Turks, nor should we ask them to do that, and they won’t be able to temper the Kurds.
- We must urge all sides to have a real, lasting, immediate tactical ceasefire. This will require dialogue between Turkey’s Erdogan and Syria’s Assad.
- Instead of stoking war by arming all sides of every Middle Eastern conflict, we should withhold arms as leverage to encourage diplomacy. We must use whatever diplomatic leverage and limited influence we have left in the area to call for regional talks to find solutions to the more strategic problems.
Ironically, less U.S. involvement has already led to fertile negotiations between the Syrian Kurds and Assad. Realistically, any chance for a Kurdish semi-autonomous zone (similar to the one in Iraq) will only happen if the Kurds can make peace first with Assad, and then Assad must give assurances to Erdogan that he will keep the Syrian Kurds in Syria and at peace with the Turks.
We must be prepared to compromise as a way of seeking this “grand bargain.” We can’t let our ego, or our pursuit of honor, make us think we can make it all look exactly as we want through the sheer force of our will. We will have to find the courage in ourselves to accept the art of the possible or maybe even practical.