Ivan Eland: Next US president should get out of Syria quagmire before it deepens
The ISIS threat to the United States is actually manageable, Eland says
Editor’s Note: Ivan Eland is a senior fellow and the director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. The views expressed are his own.
The second presidential debate showed the poor choice American voters face in November’s election, at least on foreign policy. That was no clearer than on an issue that has vexed the Obama administration, and which has exposed the shortcomings of the foreign policy establishment’s thinking: Syria.
Sadly, for Americans, both candidates’ views on US policy to Syria are misguided and even dangerous.
Although a hawkish Hillary Clinton promised in Sunday’s debate not to use American ground forces in the Syrian civil war, she didn’t seem to count US Special Forces or military trainers already on the ground in the region. Even more troubling, she still backs a “no-fly zone” in Syria, apparently in part to obtain leverage in negotiations with the Russians over the troubled country’s future. She would also ramp up assistance to the Kurds and target the leader of the ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Of course, all this promises a gradual escalation, a la Vietnam, for the same reason – competition with Russia over a nonstrategic, backwater country. When these initial US actions fail to have the desired US outcome – whatever that is – such escalation will likely become necessary because “we can’t let cocky Vladimir Putin humiliate the world’s superpower.” Such escalation might be more dangerous than it was in Vietnam; the creation of a US no-fly zone might cause American aircraft to come into direct and overt hostile contact with those of a nuclear-armed nation
The Cold War has been over for a quarter-century and Russia is only a shadow of the Soviet Union, yet old rivalries and ways of operating die hard. The Russians care more about Syria than does the United States – and should – because that country is the only ally they have left in the Middle East. Yet the US government regards Russian boldness in Syria as threatening US global dominance.
It is difficult to limit competition with Russia over Syria when the US foreign policy establishment sees the situation through these lenses – the way it was with American involvement in Vietnam when the US-Soviet rivalry loomed. And the reality is that if the United States gets dragged into a third quagmire, this time in Syria (Iraq and Afghanistan alone have cost between $4 trillion and $6 trillion) and if the domestic entitlements and debt crisis continue at home, the United States might no longer be able to afford, in the long term, being a superpower.
But even if we don’t get rid of the despotic Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, don’t we still need to vanquish ISIS?
Despite Donald Trump’s troublingly superficial knowledge of policy, his occasionally fresh set of eyes do see somewhat clearer than Clinton’s on some issues. His reflexive and seemingly content-free “tough-guy” desire to “crush and destroy ISIS” is accompanied by the correct observation that in the past, the United States has assisted rebels who turned out to be worse than the regime the United States was opposing. He used the example of the rebels trying to overthrow Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, but one could also add Jimmy Carter’s and Ronald Reagan’s aid to Islamist militants fighting the Soviet-backed communist Afghan government during the Cold War in the 1980s – militants who ultimately became the perpetrators of the catastrophic 9/11 attacks. With that in mind, Trump is convincing in his suggestion that more arms for opposition groups in Syria could end up in the wrong hands, an outcome likely in a multisided, chaotic civil war in which the most ruthless groups have so far been more successful.
If Trump had stopped there, his Syrian policy would have made some sense. However, he said that Russia and its allies Assad and Iran were fighting ISIS. Trump has also advocated having better relations with Russia to combat ISIS. Recognizing that Russia has legitimate security interests, not regarding every issue as a Cold War-like competition between the United States and that nation, and having better relations with the Russians would be a good policy simply to avoid a nuclear war and to counter a rising China. But it is important to remember that Russia, Assad, and Iran have the primary goal of keeping the brutal Assad in power. They are nominally fighting ISIS, but in reality have been trying to decimate other opposition groups first.
The Obama administration made the mistake of getting involved in Syria in the first place; a new president who is smart would use the change in administrations to get out before the quagmire deepens.
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Many will understandably ask the question: But who will take care of ISIS? The point to remember here is that the ISIS threat to the United States is actually manageable, not least because the group has had little success in recruiting Americans to get military training in Iraq and Syria and then return to the United States to launch directed attacks on US soil. Instead, they have had to rely on inspiring largely incompetent amateurs already here.
Ultimately, Trump is right that US allies in the Middle East need to do more to combat what is primarily an ISIS threat to that region. But when your adversaries – Russia, Assad, and Iran against ISIS and al Qaeda – are getting bogged down and are being kept busy killing each other, why get in their way?