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Trump’s troop withdrawal caps failed US policy in Syria, experts say

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/20/2018 Deirdre Shesgreen

Photo gallery by Reuters

WASHINGTON – U.S. troops may have driven the Islamic State from a swath of territory in Syria – allowing President Trump to declare mission accomplished on Tuesday – but experts say that America’s years-long involvement in Syria has ended in near-complete failure.  

Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, remains in power despite U.S. demands for his ouster. Syria’s deadly civil war remains unresolved, with a mounting death toll and millions of refugees displaced. Russia and Iran’s influence in Syria has grown, while U.S. leverage has diminished. And while ISIS may not have a patch of land to call its own, the terrorist group remains a menacing threat in the region.

“We empowered Russia, we empowered Iran, we discredited the U.S. in terms of its ability to support the Arabs (fighting Assad) and its credibly on the ‘red line’ involving gas warfare,” said Anthony Cordesman, a national security and defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“We are leaving an extremely unstable Syria, and we have no clear strategy announced for what we’re doing in (neighboring) Iraq,” where ISIS also has a significant presence, added Cordesman, a one-time national security adviser to the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Defense Department intelligence official. “That is obviously a very undesirable way of trying to shape the future.”

Cordesman and others say the U.S. never had a clear strategy for its involvement in Syria, starting with President Barack Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes in 2014 and continuing into Trump’s tenure. Although both presidents said they wanted Assad out, neither aggressively pursued that goal.

“We lightly pursued a regime change policy by helping the weakest side of a civil war, and I don’t think that ever made sense,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a libertarian-leaning foreign policy advocacy group.

Obama’s ‘red line’

Obama always seemed uncomfortable with the U.S. role in Syria – reluctant to get involved in a new Middle East conflict after having campaigned on withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan. But he dispatched special forces to the region in 2015 and the U.S. military footprint grew from there, with approximately 2,000 troops in Syria now. 

Even before those boots American boots hit the ground in Syria, Obama warned Assad’s regime not to cross a “red line” by using chemical weapons against his own people. In 2013, Assad’s forces unleashed a sarin gas attack that killed as many as 1,400 people.

a man standing on a rock in the snow: A Syrian soldier films the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria on April 14, 2018. The Pentagon says none of the missiles filed by the U.S. and its allies was deflected by Syrian air defenses, rebutting claims by the Russian and Syrian governments. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, also says there also is no indication that Russian air defense systems were employed early Saturday in Syria. © Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc. A Syrian soldier films the damage of the Syrian Scientific Research Center which was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria on April 14, 2018. The Pentagon says none of the missiles filed by the U.S. and its allies was deflected by Syrian air defenses, rebutting claims by the Russian and Syrian governments. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, also says there also is no indication that Russian air defense systems were employed early Saturday in Syria.

Obama prepared for a military strike but could not muster enough support in Congress for authorization. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry worked with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. The result: while 600 metric tons of chemical weapons were destroyed, the Assad regime has continued to use such weapons in the conflict, with horrific consequences.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama missed an opportunity to arm moderate Syrian rebels who could have ousted Assad and bolstered America’s strategic interests in the region.

“The time came and went when we could actually do something like that,” he told USA TODAY on Tuesday. And neither Obama nor Trump were willing to use American power to help end the humanitarian crisis or to challenge Russia and Iran as they stepped into the void, he said.

Over the last two years, the Trump administration has articulated an evolving set of goals in Syria: Defeating ISIS, ending Syria's civil war, protecting the allied Kurdish and Arab forces, and forcing Iran and its proxy fighters out of Syria. But while senior administration officials – including Trump's National Security Adviser John Bolton – said the U.S. would remain until those objectives were achieved, Trump himself never seemed sold on the policy. 

And with his announcement Wednesday that he had ordered all troops home immediately, Trump essentially short-circuited his own administration's policy.

“We have never had a very clear strategy and vision about Syria other than to say that Assad can’t stay,”  Menendez said. “Now we’re at the end of it where everything we said we didn’t want has happened. Assad is in power, Russia is empowered in a part of the Middle East that it didn’t have a foothold in before, and Iran has a foothold to attack Israel. It’s a bad result all the way around.”

Menendez and other lawmakers said Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces is yet another misstep. It will sow further chaos in the region, they said, and leave the Kurdish forces who have fought alongside the U.S. vulnerable to attack from Assad and Turkey. Worst of all, some suggested, it would give ISIS an opportunity to reemerge. 

"The biggest winners are going to be Iran, ISIS (and) Assad," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "The biggest losers are going to be the people of Syria, eventually Americans if ISIS comes back ... our allies." 

Cutting U.S. losses

Others said Trump's decision would cut American losses before things got even worse. 

The rationales to stay are "awful," said Friedman, who argued that the U.S. should embrace its defeat of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and "not stick around long enough" to become even more deeply embroiled in the conflict, particularly with Russian forces who are propping up the Assad regime. 

"The consequences of getting into a fight with Russia are not just terrible. They’re essentially catastrophic," he said. 

One thing both liberals, conservatives, and centrists seem to agree on: U.S. involvement may have made Syria’s civil war worse - not better. 

“America’s military presence in Syria has always been too little to make a decisive difference but just enough to prolong the fighting," said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. "Our half-hearted military commitment made no sense from the start - we went into this war without legal authorization or realistic objectives, and discounted the American people’s clear aversion to getting involved in another quagmire in the Middle East." 

Justin Logan, director of programs at Catholic University's Center for the Study of Statesmanship, agreed that the U.S. role seemed to extend a conflict that Assad was guaranteed to win.

"The country has been turned into a charnel house," he said. "There’s an awful lot of carnage for not that much payoff."

More: Syria conflict explained: How did we end up here?

More: Trump orders US troops out of Syria, declares victory over ISIS; senators slam action as mistake

More: From U.S. strike to Assad chemical attack: Destruction in Syria

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump’s troop withdrawal caps failed US policy in Syria, experts say

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