A simple analogy vividly depicts the lesson lost on most in the Republican foreign policy establishment who believe we need American soldiers left precariously and indefinitely on the ground in tribal civil wars in order to keep us safe. When there are killer whales, sharks, snakes, and scorpions in a cesspool fighting each other, you don’t dive head-first into the tank to try to fight one of those dangers without understanding how you will survive the others or avoid tipping the balance of power to the other beasts. You stand outside from a position of strength, define your interests, and zap any one of the adversaries that comes out of the tank and inside your zone of interest.
President Trump is well on his way to learning the lesson of not diving head-first into the cesspool. He should follow up with strong action to protect our interests, using the right soft power tools to deter our enemies. That will go a long way toward framing his move out of Syria as a more effective means of deterring a complex web of multiple enemies – often at war with each other – and putting our interests first.
As I’ve noted many times, there is simply no reason for us to have a ground presence in Syria at this point. That is a position I’ve maintained since the beginning of the civil war, regardless of who was president.
The tangled web of alliances and enemies is dizzying just to articulate. There is the Sunni insurgency, representing the Sunni tribes in the east, that is constantly fighting the Shiite powers backing the Assad regime. Assad himself has outside help from Iran and Hezbollah, all supported by Russia, which makes the Sunnis resent Assad even more. Putin himself only backs Assad for his own strategic reasons and is not necessarily happy about the Iranian presence there.
Thus, in order to effectively advocate for intervention there, one needs to craft an ever-elusive solution to deal with all of the differently interested powers in the region. But people like Lindsey Graham who want our soldiers engaged in Syria don’t have a plan. The same people who demanded we be the ones to fight ISIS (the Sunni insurgency in its most recent, but certainly not final, iteration) are the ones who also complain about Iran and Assad. But nobody has explained how, since we fought the Sunni insurgency, we were not the ones who empowered Iranian hegemony in the region for free. With our troops out of the region, Russia and Iran would have to face the Sunni backlash without us keeping it in check for them.