Cyclical Intervention Leaves Syria in Tatters

 In mid-October, President Trump announced that he would withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Syria, citing his desire to remove the U.S. from “endless wars” in the Middle East. The announcement was met with blistering protests from both sides of the congressional aisle. The decision’s impact has been immediate and catastrophic: Turkey has taken Trump’s announcement as an invitation to invade Northern Syria; Kurdish forces — once allied with the U.S. — now face a Turkish ethnic cleansing campaign in Syria; and Russian and Syrian government forces have rushed in to fill the void. With hundreds of civilians already dead amidst the violence and a new wave of internally displaced people now racing away from the Turkish border, the situation is a humanitarian catastrophe with long-term political implications. 

Trump’s decision follows decades of debilitating interventions in the Middle East. From Bush-era involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Obama administration’s failed or half-baked bids to break strong-man regimes in Libya and Syria, most American attempts to intervene in Arabic countries have only ended in power vacuums and mass atrocities. But Trump’s Syria policy is as unique as it is horrifying, replete with a stunning betrayal of U.S. allies and underscoring everything that is wrong with America’s interference in the Middle East.

The U.S. has had a precarious position in Syria since war first broke out in 2011, following the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on civilian protests during the Arab Spring. Along with most European governments, President Obama turned against long-standing U.S.-allied dictators throughout the Middle East and backed Arab Spring protests, demanding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. Obama also announced his famous “red line:” threatening to strike Syrian government assets if Assad used chemical weapons against the Syrian uprising. 

But when Assad launched a brutal chemical attack against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, killing hundreds of people, Obama bowed to pressure from his own government and agreed to seek congressional authority before striking. Republicans resisted, claiming that it would be unconstitutional and illegal to strike a foreign government if there was no imminent threat to President Obama’s red-line commitment went unpursued, and it would be another year before the U.S. became involved in Syria, this time to prop up Kurdish forces in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Despite protests from Turkey, which generally views Kurdish forces in Syria as sympathetic to Kurdish terrorist organizations, the U.S. proved to be the Kurds’ most substantial ally in routing ISIL. The U.S. was instrumental in reclaiming ISIL-held territory in Syria and Iraq for these respective countries, which once covered an area larger than Britain. But as ISIL was beaten back, international attention turned away from the Syrian government, which used ISIL’s news dominance as a cover to slaughter thousands of civilians and moderate rebels in indiscriminate attacks throughout Syria. The rebel movement collapsed, and by the time Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the Obama administration’s support of the Syrian people in their uprising against Assad had yielded nothing but failure. ISIL fell back and Assad’s forces marched forward, effectively taking back all of Syria aside from the Kurdish-controlled Northeast. Obama’s attempts to walk the line between involvement and non-involvement were unsuccessful; the U.S. failed to broker peace, catalyze a democratic transition, and prevent Assad from using chemical weapons to kill thousands.

Enter Trump. After winning the 2016 election, the Trump administration waited until ISIL had lost its last territorial holds in Eastern Syria before announcing that U.S. troops would withdraw, leaving Syria to Russia and Iran. 

Criticism arose on both sides of the aisle. First and foremost, the Kurds, a longtime ally in the fight against ISIL, were now unsupported in their struggle to prevent ISIL from rising from the ashes — reports warn that hundreds of ISIL-associated detainees have already escaped from Kurdish prisons. Then, immediately after the U.S. withdrawal, Turkey launched a cross-border assault into Syria to strike down the Kurds’ dream of self-governance and regional autonomy, which Turkey views as a massive security threat. 

Fearing genocide and ethnic cleansing, the Kurds turned to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, agreeing to allow Syrian government troops into Northern Syria in order to prevent Turkish forces from establishing a Turkish military zone over what had previously been Kurdish and Syrian territory. The Northeast has collapsed back into violence, with blood once again on the U.S. government’s hands.

This particular cycle of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East is now drawing to yet another bloody close. Much like previous attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s desire to involve itself in Syria has only resulted in yet another power vacuum — with betrayed U.S. allies caught in its middle. America’s get-in, get-out strategy, which destabilizes regimes without ensuring an effective transfer of power, has once again led to violence and greater instability. Terrible in his own right, Trump is simply ending yet another chapter in the enduring American tradition of ill-fated Middle East interventions, with little to show for American efforts beyond bitter resentment in Congress, increasing partisan division among Americans, and little to no positive change in Syrian society.

So, where will the U.S. intervene and destabilize next? Iran, or maybe Venezuela? Trump seems indecisive as ever. The U.S. has always been a can-do country, and no administration — Democratic or Republican — seems willing to face the simple fact that there are some things in the world about which the U.S. can do nothing, some countries that do not want nor need democracy, and some conflicts in which the U.S.’s involvement will do nothing but cause more pain. But the U.S. seems unlikely and unwilling to change its tune — we can only hope that next time, it won’t end so poorly.