A Sensible Take on Syria

Liberals’ foreign policy views are inconsistent, but entirely predictable: whatever a Republican president does, they oppose. Thus, Democrats applauded when President Obama prematurely withdrew American troops from Iraq, enabling the rise of ISIS. But when President Trump pulled a few hundred out of Syria, it was: OMG! The Kurds!

James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation and the Institute of World Politics gave an interview to the Daily Signal that gives the best take I have seen on Trump’s recent Syria move. You really should read it all, but here are some highlights:

When President Trump came in office, he actually expanded the U.S. footprint in Syria, because military advisers made the argument that … you couldn’t take down the caliphate—in other words, destroy the physical state that the terrorist had—if we didn’t actually have forces in there working with indigenous groups that were fighting ISIS, chief among them, the YPG, which is an armed Kurdish group.

And so President Trump actually increased the U.S. footprint in Syria. Then subsequent to that, after the caliphate was destroyed, the president wanted to withdraw U.S. troops. The military advisers and several allies, including Israel, said, “Well, look, there’s still concerns that need to be addressed.” So we’ve maintained a small footprint in Syria for the last year or so.
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[W]e estimate it’s a relatively small print of a few hundred Americans in uniform that are spread around the areas that are not controlled by the Syrian government.
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Let’s start by what the Turks are doing. They’re not invading Syria. There is a portion of Syria which borders Turkey, which right now is kind of uncontrolled. Nobody really controls the port. The Syrian government doesn’t control the border. There are Kurdish groups in that area and the Turks wanted to control that area. It’s several kilometers wide, so it’s really a small chunk of Syria.

Why do they want to control it? Well, one, they don’t want it to be a platform for Kurdish terrorist groups, not the Kurdish people. There’s a difference, right? There are Kurds all over the region. There are Kurds in Iran. There are Kurds in Iraq. There are Kurds in Syria. There are Kurds in other places. So when you say the Kurds, that’s a lot of people spread all over the Middle East, but there are Kurdish groups which are affiliated with specific terrorist groups, like the PKK, which is a terrorist group [that] … focuses on attacking Turkey.

So they don’t want terrorist groups to use that area as a platform to attack Turkey. They want to control their border and they would like to create a space because they have probably a million refugees or more from Syria that are living in Turkey. The Turks would like to create a space so those people can move back into Syria. It’s a relatively limited objective that the Turks have outlined.
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What did the U.S. do? Well, if you actually read the statement of the Department of Defense, which actually explains this, we didn’t give permission for the Turks to do this. They didn’t ask permission. And the reality is we can’t stop them from doing this. We have a couple of hundred soldiers in the entire country. We don’t have enough … to prevent the Turks from doing anything unless we’re going to start bombing the Turkish military, which I don’t think we’re going to do.

So they didn’t ask our permission. They said they were going to do this and what we did, which was actually probably appropriate, [was] we made sure that Americans weren’t in harm’s way, so if things went bad, our guys wouldn’t get hurt.

We should be really clear here, because what the U.S. government did [is] they said, “Look, you’re going in here. You are responsible for what you do. There are civilians in there. Protecting those civilians … that’s your job now.”

There are thousands of ISIS fighters detained in that area. If you wind up taking control of them, you’re responsible for them. If those guys … get out and they’re running around the country, you have to capture them and then detain them because if those guys, bad guys, spill out, that’s your fault. …

I don’t think we left the Turks off the hook at all.
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The one we’re talking about specifically is called the YPG, which is a subset of a group called the SDF. They are an armed militia that we partnered with to help fight ISIS and to track down ISIS guys and detain them. And indeed, they’re detaining many of these guys. They’re not an ally. … They’re very, very good fighters. That doesn’t make them nice guys.

To be fair, defeating the caliphate as rapidly as we did under President Trump would not have been possible without arming them. Having said that, they’re not an ally of the United States. We don’t really owe them anything, other than we made a transactional deal to work with them to defeat the caliphate. And we have transactional deals to help them when they do [things that are] helpful to us. As long as we’re fulfilling that obligation, that transactional obligation, I think we’re OK.

People always say, “Well, the Turks are going to kill these guys.” Well, if the YPG … has a war with the Turkish military, yeah, they probably will shoot each other. One of the things that the United States could do is help broker that because they shouldn’t be fighting each other. And the Turks have legitimate concerns about terrorists.
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We have limited interest in Syria, we have limited capabilities, and we have limited influence. The question is how to use that best? These people that talk about a couple of hundred soldiers—which to be honest, are a speed bump to bad actors in that country—they’re not going to end the war in Syria. They’re not going to solve the problem. They’re not going to protect the Kurds.

The U.S. can be a limited force for good, and the question is, how do we do that? How do we best leverage our footprint to be a limited force for good?

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