The 68-23 vote by the Senate Thursday for an amendment opposing the withdrawal American troops from Syria and Afghanistan demonstrates the Republican-controlled chamber doesn’t support President Trump’s desire to pull U.S. troops out of both nations at this time. The amendment is to a bill that has yet to be voted on in the Senate.
President Trump tweeted in December that the approximately 2,000 American troops in Syria would be withdrawn soon, writing: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis soon resigned soon afterward. And President Trump’s top intelligence officials testified before Congress this week that ISIS – despite suffering big losses in territory and fighters – has not been defeated and remains a threat.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., normally a staunch ally of the president, said Thursday that “ISIS and Al Qaeda have yet to be defeated” in Syria and Afghanistan.
McConnell backed the Senate amendment, which stated that “withdrawal of the United States forces from the ongoing fight against these groups (ISIS and Al Qaeda) … could allow terrorists to regroup, destabilize critical regions, and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia, to the detriment of United States interests and those of our allies.”
However well-deserved the consternation over President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the subsequent debate has been overly focused on means, not ends. Whether or not there are U.S. troops in Syria is less important than the question of what should be U.S. objectives in Syria and how to achieve those objectives.
The United States should join Israel in striking Iranian targets, or at least back Israel’s freedom of action in Syria against Russian resistance.
The Trump administration has recently made clear its commitment to – as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently put it in Cairo – “the complete dismantling of ISIS” and to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria.
However, Pompeo suggested limited tools to achieve this goal, saying “the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners.”
President Trump deserves much credit for the actions he has taken against Iran – withdrawing from the deeply flawed nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic and imposing economic sanctions. But he can claim neither all the credit nor success. Iranian domestic turmoil began before Trump imposed sanctions.
And – despite President Trump’s recent statements to the contrary – economic and domestic pressure is not forcing Iran to retrench. Instead, Tehran continues to entrench itself in Syria. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad – backed by Iran and Russia – continues to expand its control, and test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile in December.
What is needed – and what a U.S. military presence is no substitute for – is a strategy that defeats ISIS, blocks Turkish expansion into Syria, and rolls back Iran. The right combination of an aggressive posture, airpower, and support for allies could still allow the United States to achieve these objectives, even without troops in Syria.
Certainly, the 2,000-plus U.S. troops in Syria based in key strategic locations – including in al-Tanf, the Syrian northeast and the nation’s oil regions – have been critical. They have helped deliver a crippling blow to ISIS, blocked Turkish expansion and a conflict with Syrian Kurds, served as leverage with Russia, and impeded Iranian expansion.
American troops can’t stay indefinitely, but their continued deployment in Syria until ISIS is defeated and Syria’s political makeup is resolved is vital.
Even without U.S. troops, however, the campaign against ISIS can continue to be waged with Syrian Kurdish forces on the ground and U.S. airpower.
Making sure that those local forces remain committed to fighting ISIS – and are neither co-opted by Iran nor massacred by Turkey – will require the U.S. to provide the Kurds with security guarantees, aerial support and protection, and assistance with rebuilding in both Syria and Iraq. This will also serve to check Turkish expansion.
When it comes to rolling back Iran, what is most critically needed is for the United States to get over its fear of Iran.
U.S. forces in Syria have not actively blocked Iranian activity there. The United States has apparently avoided this mission, partly out of fear of reprisal against U.S. forces in Iraq from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Israel has not feared a conflict with Iran, and neither should America. There are no Israeli boots on the ground in Syria, but that has not impeded Israel from launching hundreds of effective attacks on Iranian targets into the country, despite rising Russian criticism.
Meanwhile, Washington’s aversion to conflict with Tehran has only emboldened Iran, Russia and Turkey – all three of which fear a clash more than America does. It is time for a more aggressive U.S. stance to curb these countries’ regional aggression.
The United States should join Israel in striking Iranian targets, or at least back Israel’s freedom of action in Syria against Russian resistance. U.S. forces in Iraq, which Trump is maintaining, could help block Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Lebanon that pass through Iraq, perhaps even arresting Iranian commanders.
The U.S. Navy should interdict Iranian sea-based shipments to Yemini Houthis, which is the latter’s primary weapons source in the Yemini civil war.
At a minimum, the United States should actively support partners that are willing to help us take on Iran. As Secretary Pompeo said in Egypt, “we’re looking to our partners to do more, and in this effort we will do so going forward together.”
For Israel, the United States should fast-track already agreed upon security assistance, so that Israel can acquire more military assets more quickly.
In particular, Israel might benefit from air-attack capabilities, air refueling tankers, precision munitions, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States must also update prepositioned weapons in Israel that the latter could access in emergency, such as a conflict with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, the prospect of which is growing.
Further, America should elevate Israel’s status to that of Australia so that it can share with the Jewish state more intelligence and advanced weapons and technology.
It would be best for the Trump administration to suspend withdrawal of troops from Syria. But is more important for America to pursue an effective strategy of defeating ISIS, blocking Turkish aggression, and rolling back Iranian expansion.
Until such a plan is unveiled, critics will continue to have reason to equate a tactical withdrawal with a strategic retreat.
Michael Makovsky is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former Pentagon official.