Why is US stuck on regime change in Syria?
More than a year has passed since the rout of Islamic State in Syria and six months since President Donald Trump backtracked on his plan to end U.S. military intervention there. The then-stated purpose of keeping more than 500 American boots on the ground was either to “secure the oil,” per Trump, or to mete further damage on ISIS, per Pentagon brass.
But in a video conversation hosted by the Hudson Institute this month, U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey offered two different rationales, both deeply reckless: to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and to antagonize Russia. This insight into the Trump administration’s Syria policy reveals its danger, made no more excusable by the small size of the U.S. deployment involved.
Jeffrey didn’t use the term “regime change,” and, in fact, he explicitly repudiated it in November, telling PBS the Trump administration is “not in the business of regime change” in Syria. But his remarks sound like appetite for exactly that: “We do try to stress to the Russians that as long as they have an ally like Assad, they’re not going to get the international community to stomach him, to support a diplomatic reconciliation, to support reconstruction assistance,” Jeffrey said, “so that they are allied and hooked up with a cadaver, and they realize that that’s not a good way forward.” Ten minutes later, he reiterated the point, noting that among Russian aims is for “everybody to recognize Assad as the leader of Syria. That’s not going to happen.”
This isn’t an announcement of large-scale U.S. invasion, to be sure. It’s not the launch of a new Iraq or Libya. But neither is it repudiation of regime change as a goal, however latent, of Trump administration policy. Characterizing the Assad regime as a “cadaver” and precluding the possibility of international recognition suggests, at the very least, that if an opportunity for forcible regime change in Syria were perceived to arise, the Trump administration would take it.
The temptation is understandable: “Assad is a war criminal whose forces killed more than half a million of his compatriots and produced several million refugees,” wrote Harvard scholar Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy this past fall. “In a perfect world, he would be on trial at The Hague instead of ruling in Damascus. But we do not live in a perfect world, and the question we face today is how to make the best of a horrible situation.”
I would argue that in a perfect world Assad never would have held power or killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the first place, but Walt is right about making the best of the world as it is. If we have learned anything from the last two decades of foreign policy failures, that cannot include another round of U.S.-orchestrated regime change, neither in Syria nor anywhere else. Like regime changes of our recent past, it would be a costly, inhumane exercise in hubris with grim, unintended consequences, including for the Syrian people.
Jeffrey’s second goal, antagonizing Russia, is riskier still. Prompted by a comment from moderator Michael Doran, who argued that the U.S. has “no interest” in Syria because we have “no major economic interest” and “the Assad regime does not pose a direct threat to the United States,” Jeffrey tellingly did not disagree. “[T]his isn’t Afghanistan. This isn’t Vietnam. This isn’t a quagmire,” he said. “My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians.”
That is a bad job to do. U.S. military presence in Syria in close proximity to Russian military presence is inherently insecure. It creates constant occasion for escalation, particularly because Moscow has greater investment and interests at stake and is therefore unlikely to back down in the event of confrontation. Even an innocent accident or miscommunication, if severe enough, could plunge us into unnecessary and unwanted war, and Trump’s decision, announced Thursday, to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty aggravates Russia, making such an accident more likely. Add the deliberate antagonism Jeffrey describes and the entire U.S. intervention becomes active courtship of great power conflict. This strategy — though it hardly deserves the name — is asinine and indefensible.
The proper course of action in Syria is the one Trump advocated before he was president: complete U.S. departure. All American troops should be brought home once and for all, extracted from a tragic situation that cannot be fixed by U.S. military meddling. U.S. forces should not be kept in harm’s way in pursuit of aims that can only detract from security and peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today.