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America’s Ill-Fated Syria Intervention: The Lessons Washington Must Learn

October 15, 2019 in Economics

By Christopher A. Preble, Doug Bandow

Christopher A. Preble and Doug Bandow

News that Turkey had sent its military into northeast Syria, after receiving a tacit green light from President Trump, marked a grim low point in U.S. involvement in the lengthy, multisided Syrian civil war. The fate of Kurdish forces who battled ISIS and civilians sheltered in refugee camps have generated understandable concern. But there has been too little reflection on how we arrived at this unhappy place. Americans should learn from the experience and pledge to avoid similar debacles in the future.


The many problems with U.S. intervention in Syria began with an extraordinarily ambitious, and ultimately irreconcilable, set of goals. U.S. officials wanted to take advantage of the Arab Spring reform movements that erupted in early 2011 to oust Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while also thwarting Russian and Iranian ambitions in Syria and beyond. Both the Obama and Trump administrations relied on some violent extremists to defeat other radical groups, especially the Islamic State, which sought to establish its so-called Caliphate. Supporting regime change in Damascus undercut efforts to counter ISIS. Moreover, as ISIS gained strength, the United States enlisted the help of—and armed—Kurdish fighters, which contradicted promises to NATO ally Turkey. Particularly worrisome to Ankara was U.S. support for fighters associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist-Leninist organization which the U.S. government still lists as a terrorist organization.

In other words, successive administrations adopted policies toward a new and informal partner which conflicted with the long-held security concerns of a treaty ally of nearly sixty-eight years. In recent months, President Donald Trump has reiterated his desire to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria and hinted that he might give in to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demand that the United States withdraw support from the Kurds along Turkey’s border. In both cases Trump encountered fierce resistance from within his administration and throughout the Washington foreign-policy establishment, and he retreated from that pressure. The White House’s latest announcement suggests that he still wants to wash his hands of the entire Syria imbroglio.


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