President Trump on Syria: Playing chess or clueless?

President Trump seems intent on withdrawing American forces from Syria in the very near future. He takes the position that we are in Syria only to defeat ISIS. With this objective nearly accomplished, he argues, it’s almost time for our forces to come home.

Over the weekend, however, Trump responded to the barbaric gassing of Syrian civilians by blasting “Animal Assad,” calling out Russia and Iran as responsible for the attack given their support for Assad’s regime, and warning of retaliation. There will be “a big price” to pay he seemed to promise.

But Assad’s chemical attack has nothing to do with ISIS. If our mission in Syria is confined to defeating ISIS, why should we impose a price on Assad for actions unrelated to these terrorists?

Trump can, of course, impose a price for the latest attack and still pull out of Syria. He could bomb an airfield or two on our way out.

But this wouldn’t be a “big price.” Syria (along with Russia and Iran) would accept a little bombing damage in exchange for our exit, which would leave them free to murder their way to something like total victory. Accordingly, token bombing on our way out of Syria is inconsistent with the sentiment that, one hopes, underlies Trump’s comments about Assad.

Is it in our interest to remain? I think so.

We have an interest in preventing Iran, our number one state enemy in the world, from dominating all or most of Syria. We have an interest in helping the Kurds, our excellent ally in the fight against ISIS, defend themselves. A country that abandons its partners in battle will have trouble finding partners for the next battle.

We also have an interest in preventing the revival of ISIS or the reemergence of a similar terrorist force in Syria. President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, often criticized by Trump, is instructive. With the U.S. gone, ISIS emerged from the wreckage of al Qaeda in Iraq. Something similar might very well occur in Syria with the U.S. gone.

These interests can be advanced without a full-scale military commitment to Syria. We can’t topple Assad without participating in a major war. However, as Eli Lake argues, we can help our mainly Kurdish allies maintain the territory east of the Euphrates River that they, with our help, liberated from ISIS and that is not yet under Assad’s boot.

Lake notes that we did something similar in Iraq after the first Gulf War to protect Kurds in northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein. We accomplished this through no fly zones. In Syria, more would be required, but likely not a large contingent of ground troops.

So: Is Trump playing chess in Syria or is he clueless? It’s too early to say. I just hope he’s not playing an ignoble form of chess — small ball masquerading as policy worthy of a serious world power.

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