Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decision Time for Trump, Congress, and America

The Obama administration ignored the logical consequences of saying Assad had to step down by waging a parallel war as a de facto ally of Assad against the common enemy of ISIL that put off enforcing that declaration. The defeat of the ISIL caliphate has exposed the wide gap between the stated preference for Assad to leave and the focus of military action on ISIL only. So what do we do now?

Yeah, this is a problem for our military presence in Syria:

With the Islamic State (IS) on the run across Syria, the Donald Trump administration has committed to using US armed forces in the country to counter Iranian influence.

Its refusal to publicly provide details — or a legal justification — for its military strategy, however, is raising bipartisan concerns in Congress that the United States could be drawn further into conflict with a wide array of actors in Syria’s complex civil war with no timeline for withdrawal.

First, regarding that "timeline for withdrawal," just stop that "exit strategy" nonsense right now. It is stupid. My contempt for that thinking as an alternative to thinking about victory pre-dates The Dignified Rant:

Not wanting to repeat our experience in Vietnam, many speak of needing an "exit strategy" before committing troops. Such an approach seeks to minimize our losses under the assumption that we will at some point lose, so we had better know when to cut our losses and get out. It also assumes that the situation allows for an exit and that our enemy will allow it. The Iraqis desperately wanted out of the war they initiated in 1980 but were locked in by Iran in a death grip that allowed for no easy exit. While planning for a tough, resilient enemy is prudent, we must never become paralyzed by concentrating on how that enemy can hurt us. We need to keep our focus on achieving victory.

But in that first article there is a valid point about our military presence in Syria. We rightly want Iran out of Syria, but Assad is the recognized (albeit blood thirsty and cruel) leader of Syria and has the legal right to invite Iran to stay and insist America leave.

Yet abandoning our allies in Syria who helped us defeat ISIL to the tender mercies of Assad and his ruthless Russian and Iranian allies is no way to build credibility to encourage cooperation with America in the future.

This is why, after defeating ISIL in Iraq, building up acceptable local rebels in Syria, and defeating ISIL in Syria (the win, build, win steps I outlined), from the very beginning of our war against ISIL I wanted the removal of Assad to be the logical end phase of a war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria:

The fourth step is to continue the win over ISIL by helping non-jihadi Syrian rebels in the east, in the south, and in the north to overthrow Assad. I'm not sure the Obama administration is on board with this final step.

America avoided facing that question while in the first three steps (and I suspect avoiding that question is why Iraq War 2.0 has taken so long). We've finally finished the first three steps.

America now has to face the fourth step and either finish the job by targeting Assad and defeating Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in the process; or by pulling out and accepting the consequences of Assad's continued rule, Russian and Iranian bases in Syria, Hezbollah's role on the winning side, and the loss of reputation by watching the Syrian Kurds and Syrian rebels we once supported get crushed by Assad and his allies.

Yet America has not yet committed to step four as the testimony quoted in that first link shows:

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, outlined US goals in Syria as finishing off IS, stabilizing northeastern Syria and countering Iranian influence.

So far, we aren't abandoning our local allies but we are kind of pretending that they are just a vaguely Syrian border protection force that is perfectly normal for Syria to have (but don't ask if they answer to Assad who formally leads all of Syria):

The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group said on Sunday it was working to create a 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria, drawing sharp condemnation from Turkey.

With the offensive against IS winding down, the coalition and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance were beginning to shift their focus to border security, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told AFP.

Note that the "border" includes the Euphrates River that runs through Syria, making it a de facto border defining the limit of Assad's control in the east (the DCL, for Deconfliction Line?).

The Turks, our NATO ally, have pledged to attack these forces--as just a first step [link fixed]. Seriously, if it was up to me I'd withdraw all of our nuclear bombs stored in Turkey.

What's it to be? And there is no point to complaining that Trump inherited this problem. I didn't like it when Obama did that and I haven't changed my position that every president inherits problems that haven't been neatly wrapped up by transition of power day. One can argue that a problem should have been solved already, but publicly complaining shouldn't be the president's focus.

So do we create concerns for our enemies and decide how to win?

Or do we decide how long we delay our defeat?

America can't put off this question any longer.

UPDATE: That was fast:

The United States on Wednesday signaled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy to prevent Islamic State's resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and curtail Iran's influence.

The end game of getting rid of Assad is stated along with the short-term justification of finishing off ISIL to keep American troops there.

It is good that we recognize that Iranian influence in Syria has to be stopped and rolled back.

Question: are we fine with Assad leaving but keeping the Alawite government intact with new management?

Notice that we call on Russia to help and don't mention any issue with the Russian air and naval bases in Syria.

We also noted that we will continue to train local defense forces in eastern Syria (that are opposed to Assad):

The U.S. continues to train local security forces in Syria. The training is designed to enhance security for displaced persons returning to their devastated communities. It is also essential so that ISIS cannot reemerge in liberated and ungoverned areas. This is not a new "army" or conventional "border guard" force.

This training and these forces are consistent with campaign objectives to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS, facilitate stabilization efforts, and create the conditions that support the UN-led Geneva process.

The military campaign against ISIS in Syria is not over and heavy fighting is still underway in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

So we aren't training border security forces? Now we insist they are anti-ISIL.

That could be put to the test:

Troops allied with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are determined to "end the presence of the US" in the country, Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said Monday, citing an official at the regime's Foreign Ministry.

And Turkey is not happy if this encourages Turkish Kurds to rebel despite Turkey's goal of getting rid of Assad and getting rid of Iranian and Russian influence on their southern border:

The Trump administration is backtracking on its description of a planned new security force in northeastern Syria amid escalating threats by Turkey to launch a cross-border assault against the Kurdish group involved. U.S. officials had originally described it as a “Border Security Force” that would guard the perimeter of the self-proclaimed Kurdish enclave taking shape in northeastern Syria.

We'll see if an apparent name change keeps Turkey relatively cooperative.

Nothing is simple except for giving up trying to bend events to our advantage. Although consequences of giving up can be very complicated.

Also, is Congress on board? They have to appropriate money for this. We don't necessarily need an authorization to use force resolution (Democrats changed their minds on that gold standard for the Iraq War, recall), but consultations with Congressional leaders of both parties should take place.

UPDATE: Secretary of State Tillerson's full remarks on Syria goals.