America’s Syria Debacle is Not Trump Alone


The American debacle in Syria is only matched by the debacle that is the Washington debate on Syria. Indeed, rarely have two sides fought over an issue so ferociously only for both to get it so wrong.

In the below piece for Foreign Policy, Stephen Wertheim and I point to how a conceptual deficit in American foreign policymaking ensures the entrapment of America in these self-inflicted, no-win situations.

The systemic abandonment of diplomacy that comes with this has in Syria left the United States with two bad options: irresponsible withdrawal or endless war. The first might bring troops home. It leaves disorder and dishonor behind. The second moralizes about saving others.

But it tasks the U.S. soldier with the impossible, and it sticks the American people with the bill. This conundrum is entirely self-imposed. The United States’ wars can end—and end decently. Yet as long as militarized mindsets occupy each side of the national debate, destruction will persist.

As always, we welcome your thoughts.

Trita Parsi, PhD
The Quincy Institute

America’s Syria Debacle Is Not Trump’s Alone


Rarely have two sides fought over an issue so ferociously only for both to get it so wrong.First, U.S. President Donald Trump announced almost a year ago that he would be pulling U.S. ground troops out of Syria. He failed to do so.

And then, last week, he blessed an invasion into northern Syria by Turkey, which he is now punishing through sanctions for its conduct. The only constant is that Trump claims to want to end “endless wars” while doing nothing of the sort.

His most prominent critics, for their part, have seized on Trump’s mess to demand an open-ended mission in Syria—and thus another unending deployment in the Middle East.

Both sides have put forward the fiction that Trump, who has sent 14,000 more troops to the Middle East since May, is actually reducing the U.S. military presence there. Neither offers any way for the United States to disentangle itself from the region. Indeed, the only hope of escape begins with identifying the common flaw in their logic.

To their credit, the president and his defenders seem to grasp a basic truth. They correctly observe that U.S. troops in Syria have not had a well-defined objective since the Islamic State was territorially defeated there two years ago.

Withdrawing them serves the national interest. Much the same goes for American soldiers across the greater Middle East and Africa, where the United States is fighting in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

The problem is that Trump’s anti-war rhetoric gives cover to his war-making administration. In Syria, his withdrawal has so far meant moving soldiers from one part of Syria to another so that Turkish forces could invade. Trump currently says about 1,000 of the U.S. troops in Syria will be sent elsewhere in the Middle East. Relocation is not departure. Still less is it ending war, for Americans or for Syrians.

Moreover, supposing the president eventually manages to bring troops home, his reckless behavior was wholly unnecessary. When Trump dramatically announced his decision to pull ground troops from Syria in December 2018, he lacked a plan to follow through. By one count, he repeated the same pledge at least 13 times thereafter.

Trump had ample opportunity to withdraw responsibly, namely by engaging in diplomacy to mediate a settlement among the Syrian government, the Syrian Kurds, and Turkey. Even if that effort had failed, he could have pressured Ankara to protect civilians and limit the extent of its incursion, rather than flashing a green light before reversing course to impose sanctions.

Instead, Trump allowed his appointees, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, to expand the U.S. objective from fighting the Islamic State to ridding Syria of Iranian influence—a certain recipe for a forever war. Before Trump OK’d the Turkish invasion, members of his administration reportedly reassured the Kurds that America would protect them, even though the president clearly disagreed and Congress would not authorize such a mission.

As in Syria, so in the greater Middle East. Trump may lambast endless war in tweets, but he has increased U.S. troop levels by 30 percent since May, in addition to nearly doubling U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office.

The first two years of his presidency saw 28 percent more drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan compared with his predecessor’s first two years. True, he has so far refrained from launching a new war on Iran, but his “maximum pressure” campaign helped bring the two countries close to the brink to begin with.

In short, the president claims to be ending endless war while only waging more.

Ironically, the loudest anti-Trump voices in Washington are affirming the president’s claim, using the false idea that Trump is withdrawing from the Middle East to justify further military intervention.

They have seized on Trump’s mistreatment of the Syrian Kurds to push the United States into protecting them indefinitely—a classic case of mission creep. “We must always have the backs of our allies if we expect them to have our back,” asserted Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations. The feeling is bipartisan. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented, the president “has sided with authoritarian leaders of Turkey and Russia over our loyal allies.”

That refrain is both incoherent and dangerous. Incoherent, because it is Turkey, a NATO ally, that the United States is treaty-bound to defend. The Kurds, by contrast, were temporary partners in arms, who fought with U.S. troops for the specific purpose of defeating the Islamic State. If the United States should take alliances seriously, policymakers should be troubled that the country has acquired so many allies that they are fighting one another as Washington arms both.

The danger, then, is that out of the latest chaos will come an even deadlier and longer war in which the United States sets out to underwrite Kurdish political aspirations by force (or to counter Iranian influence or to make sure the Islamic State does not return or some other unfulfillable or unverifiable aim).

If political leaders want American soldiers to risk their lives to defend Kurdish fighters, they should vote to declare war in Congress, as the U.S. Constitution requires. That they won’t reveals the extent of their moral seriousness. By offering empty words, they continue the United States’ decades-long history of betraying the Kurds.

Trump and his interventionist critics share a fatal flaw. They fetishize armed force as the acid test of U.S. engagement and influence. As a result, both sides treat the deployment or removal of troops as the only act that really matters. And they denigrate the one tool that’s actually capable of resolving conflicts and comporting with U.S. interests: diplomacy.

Early in the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration refused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offer of talks. U.S. officials convinced themselves that Assad was days away from losing power. That was a massive miscalculation. Later, the administration did participate in a diplomatic process in Geneva, but the condition for those talks, that Assad leave power, doomed them to failure.

Trump scarcely bothers with diplomacy. He abandoned the Geneva talks and allowed them to morph into the Astana process, headed by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The decision hardly made headlines in Washington.

Withdraw diplomats and no one peeps. Withdraw troops, or merely promise to, however, and pundits and politicians howl. (Former President George W. Bush called Trump an “isolationist” on Wednesday, warning of grave consequences “for the sake of peace.”) Without diplomacy, brute force becomes the only instrument left—one that cannot achieve political solutions or allow U.S. troops to exit responsibly.

The abandonment of diplomacy leaves the United States with two bad options: irresponsible withdrawal or endless war. The first might bring troops home. But it leaves disorder and dishonor behind.

The second moralizes about saving others. But it tasks the U.S. soldier with the impossible, and it sticks the American people with the bill. This conundrum is entirely self-imposed. The United States’ wars can end—and end decently. Yet as long as militarized mindsets occupy each side of the national debate, destruction will persist.

Trita Parsi is Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University.  Twitter: @tparsi

Stephen Wertheim is a Research Director at the Quincy Institute and a Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Twitter: @stephenwertheim


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  1. I don’t know IF ALL You guys know that it’s Trita Parsi So his first name is some third of something then his last name Parsi is the slang word for Zoroastrians ………. Cyrus the Great was simply awesome

  2. With all due respect to the above comment by Apha, it’s not easy for self-respecting persons to admire the current POTUS as he serves only as a distraction from the cabals’ interests. The present occupant of the WH reminds me of a line I learned from fellow Steamfitters: “There’s no point in being an A**H0le unless you’re gonna’ act like one.”
    So then, turning to the essence of the issue(s), one must admire the cleverness (NOT morality-based “INTELLIGENCE”) of the zyg0te who established The Carlisle Group, a privatized flagship MIC investment mechanism. With returns between 30 & 40%, crime families (including the bushies and bin ladens) were quick to join but, alas, we the public were excluded. If money is the root of all evil then this CG escapade provides abundant proof of that ancient saying. My Daddy (born on Bunker Hill) taught me a few things including: “You’ll find out, mister.” Also: “Light dawns on Marblehead.” And finally: “When you’re stupid, you’ve got to be tough.” For how long the American public will remain in a stupor is a mystery; but it’s a ticking bomb.
    BTW, I get censored on arrtee for comments similar to this one; and I mustn’t forget to thank all the genuine people at VT!

  3. The title in this article is misleading. US president Trump had been advocating to remove US troops, illegally on Syrian soil, for some times and the deal with Russia and using Turkey so that Syria recovers most of its land is more than honourable. Reading author Mike King of New Jersey, his latest ANYT sums it well: Trump and Putin saved Syria! And I share his analysis. Mr Trump, with the help of Mr Putin, had finally cleaned Obama/Clinton/Kerry mess (or whoever behind the scenes instructed these 3 slimes of humanity) and get its troop safely away from a potential flash point with Russia created by his predecessor. You guys at VT, should be praising your president for safekeeping the troops away from harm, as they were there again illegally, which the US had nothing to do and gain from regime change non sense and the lie packages going with it. I trust President Trump will go stronger and remove all US troops to other flash points in the future. But I am sure that the president will be watching his back from both the greater israel non sense crows plus the globalist crows (again listen to his speech at the September 2019 UN).

  4. “Seven countries in seven years”,…it’s for the children. You know that saying “don’t ask of others what you’re not willing to do yourself”, or words to that effect? We are led by people who are the antithesis of that; the worst that humanity has to offer.

    • Yes, Wesley Clarke of the bombing of Yugoslavia fame in March-April 1999 (78 days I counted) fame should have talked earlier than he did so that the clumsy silliness of mulatto (no racist intent here) Colin Powell at the February 2003 UNSC-which will go down on history with himself as another vegetable to throw in the bin- would have never happened, no regime change in Iraq, Millions of lives would be saved, then no deash created by the usual suspect….

  5. “Withdrawal…….. leaves disorder and dishonour behind”. If we only have two choices I guess that is better than a lot of dead bodies. And maybe the countries in the region can manage to find peace between them without us.

  6. Trump did a great job He ended Obamas war on Syria with ISIS! What should he do starting a war with a Nato member are you guyz nuts? The USA never had intention to fight ISIS only when russia came in they had to! Putin exposed the lies on the war against terror by uncle sam! I know you guyz here hate Trump but Trump finished what you guyz and liberlas started!