(January 4, 2019 / JNS) The decision of the Trump administration to withdraw American troops from Syria initially met with a torrent of disapproval, some with outrage. The more vociferous outrage can be attributed to the usual—knee-jerk reaction to anything proposed by the Trump White House, but apparently the top military leadership in the administration was also opposed to the withdrawal, as were most of the foreign-affairs pundits.
The more serious criticism focused the withdrawal as hand over of Syria to the Russian-Turkish-Iranian evil axis. Remembering the less-than-brilliant strategy of our military leadership in Vietnam and Iraq, I harbor no trepidation in contesting the top military perspective of the Syrian disengagement. Another, more appealing objection to me, viewed the withdrawal as an abandonment of the Kurds as a moral issue. This objection has special exigency within the context of our inglorious record of not supporting the Kurds at critical times in their history, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points.
The strategic argument that this is a windfall for the “new” evil axis cannot be proven nor disproven at this point. Like the “domino” theory relating to the communist takeover of Southeast Asia, the debate will be endless and inconclusive. My argument is simply that the American operation in Syria, in military terms, is a bridge too far.
It reminds me of the Beirut fiasco of 1983. The Marines were sent to Lebanon with an unclear mission, poor cultural intelligence, inadequate U.S. government coordination, a host of enemies, and few reliable friends. It was a mission impossible and turned into a tragedy. The ignominious withdrawal was one of the factors that influenced Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden confirming their belief that Americans were vulnerable to the body-bag syndrome.
What was/is our mission in Syria? It has never been made very clear. Initially, it seems, it was to assist the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), an organization composed of mostly Kurds to defeat the ISIS. Later, as the ISIS territorial control diminished, the mandate for the American force, in a classic example of mission creep, seemed to be contesting the Assad Syrian Arab Army (SAA) control of Syria.
Our intelligence community is incapable of keeping track of enemies and friends in a culture of constantly shifting alliances, with Islamist groups perpetually rebranding themselves, and in the presence of multiple pro-Syrian security and militia organizations. Human intelligence is usually late, and the cacophony of real-time intelligence has to be interpreted very quickly to be of any use. In my experience, the intelligence professionals who can sort out the “what does all this mean” are very rare. We will find ourselves in the same predicament as in Beirut in 1983.
The American record of success in training Arab irregulars has been dismal. The attempt to support “Free Iraqi Forces” we tried to train in Hungary prior to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” resulted in only a handful of volunteers making it to conflict areas. Earlier CIA efforts to train Syrian volunteers ended up with almost all defecting with their weapons to Islamist groups. At one time, we were providing aid and support to about 80 different groups as being “vetted” reliable allies. How could we possibly monitor that?
As in Lebanon in 1983, we are surrounded by enemies, with few reliable friends. Our 2,000 troops must be given a mission of more than “being there.” Establishing an American presence in Syria is meaningless in military terms. The old pretense of making do with a small force—acting as a “trip wire”—is a dangerous one, especially since the American public is in no mood to become ensnared in another middle east conflict.
Our line communication and resupply are through the Anbar province and eastern Syrian desert, the hotbed of Sunni Arab resistance to both the Syrian government and the Americans. They have not given up their dream of re-establishing a Sunni government in Syria or Iraq. Sympathy for the ISIS remains high. On the other hand, the Americans find very little support among the Iraqi Shi’a population, which largely sympathizes with the Alawi regime of Bashar Assad.
From the folk tales of Uncle Remus, the story of Br’er Rabbit entrapping himself in the tar baby as a result of his hubris should be a warning to those who substitute “can do” for common sense.
Norvell DeAtkine, a retired U.S. Army colonel with nine years’ residence in the Arab world dealing with their militaries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and has spent about 40 studying the region. He still instructs army personnel assigned to the Middle East.