Foreign Policy

The U.S. Shouldn't Play Endless Whack-a-Mole in Syria

ISIS' terror should not be minimized, but Washington should refrain from inflating it to justify unnecessary military action.

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The Islamic State is continuing "its transition from a territory-holding force to an insurgency in Syria and solidif[ying] insurgent capabilities in Iraq," an August Defense Department report said. It is carrying out "assassinations, suicide attacks, abductions, and arson of crops" in both countries and establishing "resurgent cells" in Syria. As Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford told reporters last month, ISIS has lost its strongholds in Mosul, Raqqa, and beyond, but "there is still a fairly vibrant insurgency that has reverted to guerilla tactics, and so there is still a threat."

The crucial question for decision-makers in Washington is where that threat is aimed—and the answer is not the United States.

ISIS is a brutal agent of chaos, but it is ultimately a regional actor which cannot dream of posing a direct threat to America. Moreover, what danger ISIS can realistically advance against the U.S. exists regardless of the changes this report details: Launching terror attacks on Western soil does not require crop arson in Iraq or cells in Syria. That aspect of the threat is not to be minimized, but neither should it be inflated to justify costly, unnecessary, and ineffective military action.

These two facts—ISIS's regional limits and international flexibility—should guide Washington's response to this latest development, leading us away from reckless mission creep, which will risk much while accomplishing nothing for American security.

For the last two decades, the Washington establishment has pursued—unsuccessfully—counterinsurgency missions and open-ended occupations. It has played an endless game of whack-a-mole, cycling through patterns of surge and drawdown, "presence" and nation-building in aimless reaction to each new iteration of terror in the Mideast. That is exactly the mistake we must avoid in Syria.

Instead, the prudent course is to continue apace with the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, which President Donald Trump announced late last year. Fortunately, Trump recently reiterated that exit is core to his Syria policy. "As [Secretary of State] Mike [Pompeo] said, we did a great job with the [Islamic State's territorial] caliphate," he said at a Cabinet meeting in mid-July. "We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we're rapidly pulling out of Syria. We'll be out of there pretty soon," Trump continued. "And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems—along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We're 7,000 miles away."

Though this promised withdrawal has been unduly delayed, Trump here is exactly right. There is no reason for the United States to jump to the front of the long line of those who want to fight ISIS.

The remains of ISIS are a regional concern which can and should be addressed by regional powers, including U.S. partners like Kurdish fighters and pro-democracy militias, as well as their enemies in Syria's civil war, the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran. Neighboring states like Turkey and Iraq oppose ISIS too—it is universally beset by forces from all sides of the Middle East's Sunni-Shia-secular conflict—and that will not change when America leaves.

However, continued U.S. drawdown could incentivize our "Syrian militia partners to look for 'alternate partnerships and resources,'" the Pentagon's acting inspector general, Glenn Fine, wrote at the opening of this week's report. Fine cast this as a negative, but the opposite is true: ISIS is a problem to be managed by those directly affected. Local actors reclaiming responsibility for their own security is a shift to be encouraged, not avoided. And burden-sharing has been a consistent theme of this administration.

Insofar as it is possible to pitch into the underlying social and political problems that allow groups like ISIS to arise in the first place, regional players—armed with a cultural proximity and vested interest Washington can never replicate—stand the best chance of making progress. Prolonging American meddling will only get in their way. (That the reconstitution of ISIS documented in this report occurred despite American presence in Syria demonstrates the futility of ongoing U.S. intervention as a method of eradicating ISIS activity.)

Leaving behind U.S. troops in Syria long after their mission is complete puts them at needless risk, and it will do nothing to enhance Americans' security. If ISIS moves its focus to Al-Qaeda-style attacks in the U.S. and Europe, as it seemed to do in 2016 and 2017, permanent U.S. occupation of Syria will do nothing to stop it. The very nature of this sort of terror threat is that it can be planned and executed anywhere with relatively few resources. Holding territory does provide some benefit to America's enemies, but no caliphate is needed, and neither is the sort of insurgency ISIS maintains now.

That reality makes canceling or further delaying our exit from Syria a bad counterterror strategy. To keep U.S. boots on the ground in Syria is to endanger American lives and sap American taxpayers to no good end. It is an indefensible exercise in foreign policy inertia, always moving the goalpost to keep the United States at war forever. We cannot fall for this bluff again.

While it is standard in Washington to speak of U.S. intervention "destroying" ISIS, any sober analysis must recognize that we can and will do no such thing, even with perpetual war. We have effectively deprived the Islamic State of its territory, but it is not possible by military means to entirely stamp out ideology-fueled terrorism. This is a political problem, and it is not one we are equipped to solve. ISIS's resurgence in Syria is not evidence that our forever war is working; if anything, it proves the exact opposite—and it is one more reason to finally come home.

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  1. The people of the Middle East are experiencing a real “Red Dawn”.

    Only the bad guy invaders are the west, us.

    “Whack a mole”, Really?

    1. Hey those thousands of Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed workers need foreign interventions.
      How else do you expect those parasites to put their children through college but with taxpayer funds.

      1. “You can’t have McDonalds without McDonnell-Douglas” – Thomas Friedman.

        Thus, the neocon/globalist view seems to be that interventionism is necessary in order to allow market access for US corporations. This has been accepted dogma during the Clinton/Bush/Obama years. As much as I dislike Trump, he at least has been mostly consistent about not intervening and opposing corporate welfare like the Ex/Im bank.

        1. Oh, and these same interventionist turds like Friedman worship China as a model nation that gets shit done despite, or perhaps because of, its atrocious human rights record and protectionism.

        2. Totally, hopefully he can continue those policies for the next couple of years.

    2. Only the bad guy invaders are the west, us.

      Does that include the Russians? The Turks? The French? Israel? Is “us” whoever happens to be invading Syria at the moment, or is “us” only “Westerners” who are invading Syria at the moment, with Turkey, Israel and Russia a “them” who are also bad guys, but not Western ones? Or is “us” any Westerners, invading Syria or not and the non-Westerners are good guys?

      Your analysis – I’m not sure how useful it is.

  2. What are you some kind of Gabbardite?

  3. Don’t stop at Syria.
    Close all foreign bases.

  4. There are dangerous people in the world. All the more reasons to check out people before they come to our country, no reason to have military intervention all over the world.

  5. In this instance, I think POTUS Trump has the right instinct. We annihilated ISIS, and it is time to leave. The problem is bailing out on the Kurds, our partners, who have been heroic in the fight against ISIS. We DO need to make provisions for them, particularly WRT Turkey. Once that happens, it is time to leave.

    1. The Kurds have long suffered and deserve self determination. But given their powerful regional enemies there is little the US can do without getting sucked in.

      1. “But given their powerful regional enemies there is little the US can do without getting sucked in.”

        Turkey is the Kurd’s biggest enemy. Turkey is also the US’s closest ally in the region.

        1. Erdogan plays both sides.
          Definitely is not the US’s strongest ally in the region.
          He has cozied up to Russia because of the disagreements with America on the Kurdish issue regarding the YPG which Turkey sees as a terrorist organization in cahoots with Turkish Kurds.
          The US pastor Andrew Brunson is another sticking point as well as Erdogans perceived nemesis Fethullah Gulen and his supporters in Pennsylvania who he wants extradited with Trump so far refusing.

          1. “Definitely is not the US’s strongest ally in the region.”

            America has two allies in the region, both members of NATO. They are Turkey and Greece, with Turkey being the stronger militarily.

            It’s surprising how warmly Americans regard the Kurds, their fighters would normally be dismissed as Marxist/Bookchinist terrorists.

            1. America’s two top allies in Middle East in general are Israel and Saudi Arabia with Jordan and the UAE as close seconds.

              1. ” Israel and Saudi Arabia with Jordan and the UAE as close seconds”

                They are not allies, but at best ‘strategic partners,’ like the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan (the puppet government) and Pakistan. Allies are members of an alliance such as NATO where members have agreed to help each other in military adventures. UK, Canada, Denmark and other members of the NATO alliance made some effort to contribute to the invasion of Afghanistan by sending soldiers to fight and die there. Israel and Saudi Arabia did not. The PKK (the main Kurdish militia based in Turkey) has long been seen as a Marxist/Bookchinist terrorist outfit. If you want to recast them as an ally or even friend, you’ve got a fair amount of re-thinking to do.

                1. Allies are members of an alliance such as NATO where members have agreed to help each other in military adventures.

                  And how has that been working out vis-a-vis the US and Turkey in Syria? The US is supporting Turkey’s goals in Syria and vice-versa, right?

                  The PKK (the main Kurdish militia based in Turkey) has long been seen as a Marxist/Bookchinist terrorist outfit.

                  Yes, but their founder (Ocalan) has in recent years sworn off terrorism and now advocates political solutions to their problems. Bookchin actually described himself as a ‘libertarian socialist’ who thought of himself as an anarchist and advocated radical decentralization of power.

                  If you want to recast them as an ally or even friend, you’ve got a fair amount of re-thinking to do.

                  Sure, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with anything as the PKK isn’t that significant of a force anymore, especially outside of Turkey. There are actually more than just that one group representing the Kurds and their region, and they aren’t the one the US is currently supporting.

                  1. “And how has that been working out vis-a-vis the US and Turkey in Syria? ”

                    NATO has both Greece and Turkey, enemies of each other. They came to blows in Cypress decades ago and since. This alliance has never worked well. As far as US goals in Syria, I can’t tell, it’s not as clear as other players in the region. I suspect presidents Obama and Trump couldn’t explain US goals in Syria in non-propagandistic terms.

                    “Yes, but their founder (Ocalan) has in recent years sworn off terrorism and now advocates political solutions to their problems. ”

                    Nelson Mandela swore off terrorism and was elected to the South African presidency. That wasn’t enough for the US government who included him on their terror lists right up until he died. Similarly PKK is still on the terror list. I wonder how many other terror groups are now embraced as allies, and how long it will be convenient to arm and train them before turning on them again.

                    “Sure, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with anything as the PKK isn’t that significant of a force anymore,”

                    That’s true. These organizations change their names and shift members around. There was a comedy movie which satirized the factionalism of such groups. Called Life of Brian. I mentioned PKK because it was one of the older, more established groups of militant Kurds. The US would never think of arming and training PKK cadres unless they changed their name. Preferably to something with the word ‘democracy’ in it.

                    1. I suspect presidents Obama and Trump couldn’t explain US goals in Syria in non-propagandistic terms.

                      Well, currently the US is providing a significant amount of aid and military support for the Syrian Democratic Council, which Turkey is actively engaged in trying to take more land from, militarily. Turkey’s and the US’s goals are in direct conflict in that situation.

                      And Turkey and the US no longer share the goal of toppling Assad’s regime.

                      To Mauser’s point, the US’s actions in the area are better explained by its alliances/strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Israel rather than the “on paper” alliance with Turkey, whose interests in the region the US has always regarded as quite secondary.

                      The US would never think of arming and training PKK cadres unless they changed their name. Preferably to something with the word ‘democracy’ in it.

                      I see what you did there ; )

                    2. ” Turkey’s and the US’s goals are in direct conflict in that situation. ”

                      In some ways, yes, but I suspect both see advantage in ‘balkanizing’ the Arab world even more than it currently is. Not sure if the Turks are crazy about US support of Kurds, but they would no doubt like to see Assad overthrown and Islamists come to dominate the place. I know Syria is a nasty police state but it seems to have a tolerance for religious minorities and secularism that leaves most Arab neighbours in the dust, so to speak. I really can’t understand the US animosity for this regime in particular.

                2. I know the precise definition of “allies” and the connection with international alliances and henceforth NATO.

                  Trump is a NATO skeptic and the relationship between him and member states have been rocky. Contrast that with America’s cozy relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia—call it friendships, strategic partners, whatever floats your boat, it does not negate the facts that Trump has supported the Saudi aggression against Yemen and its indiscriminate grotesque bombing of Houthi civilians and the expansion of Israeli settlements.

                  1. “call it friendships, strategic partners, whatever floats your boat, ”

                    You can call them allies. Just don’t call them if you’re attacked.

      2. What we can do is what we are doing…trying to cut a deal with Turkey to leave them alone. And then get the hell out. The Kurds can handle Syria or Iraq more or less on their own. They cannot handle Turkey on their own.

        I don’t want to be in Syria, Iraq, Afganistan or KSA one day longer than we absolutely have to. Time to stop doing the same shit over and over (regime change wars) and expecting a different result.

        1. “trying to cut a deal with Turkey to leave them alone.”

          Turkey sees the Kurds as terrorists and a threat to their society. And America has for decades backed Turkey on the issue. I think it was Winston Churchill who said long ago that Middle Eastern problems stem from the shabby treatment accorded to the Kurds by Europe and Asia. I’m not sure America is willing to do anything to reverse that.

          1. I think it was Winston Churchill who said long ago that Middle Eastern problems stem from the shabby treatment accorded to the Kurds by Europe and Asia.

            If so, he was wrong.

            1. Maybe he was, but I think these views are still widely held.

              1. I suppose one could argue that the British seizure of Mosul and forced renegotiation of Sykes-Picot at the end of WWI shafted the Kurds and created their present situation, but it shafted the Arabs of Damascus-Aleppo just as hard.

                Not to mention the Assyrians, the Druze, and the Yazidis, who occupy that same “Kurdish” area.

                And the intent, of course, was securing Mosul’s oil. The Kurds just happened to be there, and the British and French really didn’t care what happened to them.

                But I think it would be more accurate to fault the “shabby treatment” of the Arabic-speaking world by European powers (primarily France, Britain, Italy and Russia).

  6. “We have effectively deprived the Islamic State of its territory, but it is not possible by military means to entirely stamp out ideology-fueled terrorism. This is a political problem, and it is not one we are equipped to solve. ”

    It’s not such a problem as long as ISIS is attacking Hezbollah, Syria, Russia etc instead of American targets. And as for solving the political problem, the US could exercise its influence in Saudi Arabia if it wanted, but that doesn’t seem the case.

  7. The U.S. Shouldn’t Play Endless Whack-a-Mole in Syria

    I guess we know who else is on Putin’s payroll.

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