In the well-justified outrage at Trump’s tossing the Syrian Kurds to the tender mercies of his pal Erdogan, there has been a tendency to lose sight of the bigger questions regarding the US presence in Syria. What are we doing there, anyway? Do we need to stay? For how long? In his peculiarly ignorant and amoral way Trump in effect posed those questions for himself and decided to make good on his campaign promise to get the US out of the business of endless war–a promise that probably made at least some small contribution to his election victory.
In the Democratic presidential hopefuls’ debate last week, foreign policy got little attention, but the brief exchanges on Syria were somewhat clarifying. The starkest contrast was between Tulsi Gabbard and Joe Biden. According to Gabbard, we are in Syria to effect regime change, and we should get out. According to Biden, we are there to fight ISIS, and we need to stay…well, not clear, but maybe indefinitely. Gabbard had much the better of the argument. Our original intervention in the Syrian civil war was to have a say in its resolution; our objective, stated openly by Hillary Clinton, among other administration spokespeople, was to push Assad out of power.* Biden’s denial that we have been pursuing regime change was a remarkable display of historic amnesia.
Over time, as ISIS became a threat and the anti-Assad objective seemed to slip out of reach, American motives in Syria became more mixed (or, you might say, incoherent): to fight Isis, to counter Russian and Iranian influence, maybe still to dump Assad. But if the anti-ISIS objective were paramount, we would have done fine to stay out of Syria altogether, since all of the regional actors—the Assad regime, the. Russians, the Iranians, the Kurds and the Turks—are more directly threatened by ISIS than we are, and are quite capable of fighting their own battles. The notion that a US contribution to that fight is critical is typical of the America-centric view of the world that sees our country as the indispensable nation in the solution of all the world’s problems.
So, what do we do now? I was glad to hear Elizabeth Warren say that she wants to get all US troops out of the Middle East, but that it has to be done the right way. (Pete Buttigieg was less clear about this, probably intentionally.) She didn’t get to explain what the right way would involve, but surely it has to start with the unpleasant acknowledgment that Assad has essentially won his fight to stay in power. So, there needs to be a diplomatic effort that brings together the Syrian regime, the Russians, the Iranians, Kurds and Turks to forge a settlement. This is no easy task, and it would have been better if the US had been pursuing this all along before Trump could throw the Kurds under the bus. There may still be a chance for a decent outcome for the Kurds that gets the US out, but diplomacy is not a strong suit of this administration.
Hopefully, the Democrats will avoid the temptation to advocate a course of action to the hawkish right of the president. That would be bad policy and probably also bad politics.
* That is in principle an admirable objective—Assad is a horrible, brutal dictator–but let’s maintain a realistic skepticism about American motives. Our real problem with Assad isn’t that he is a sonofabitch–it’s that he’s not our sonofabitch. Cf. our tolerance for brutal dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.