What the Syria Hawks Refuse to Acknowledge

The strongest case for delaying withdrawal elides something essential about American foreign policy.

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria is controversial partly because of the possible consequences for the country’s Kurdish minority. “Among the biggest losers are likely to be the Kurdish troops that the United States has equipped and relied on to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” The New York Times editorialized. “Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, considers many of the Kurds to be terrorists bent on destroying his country. In recent days he has vowed to launch a new offensive against them in the Syrian border region.”

A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Tommy Meyerson, a veteran of the Syria campaign, argues that “the Kurdish-led civil administration does the heavy lifting of guarding hundreds of ISIS’ most dangerous foreign fighters,” asserts that the West “owes them a debt,” and warns that a Turkish invasion into territory they hold “would force Kurdish forces to pull back from the front lines against the remnant of ISIS, allowing the jihadists to regroup and proliferate.”

Joost Hiltermann has more on the Kurds’ grim options. And Noam Chomsky, the leftist academic and outspoken critic of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, has said it makes sense for the United States “to maintain a presence which would deter an attack on the Kurdish areas.”

Proponents of U.S. withdrawal ought to acknowledge and grapple with the fate of the Kurds, as Michael Brendan Dougherty and Stephen Walt do. That Turkey is reportedly massing troops along the border near territory held by Kurdish forces only increases the urgency of the matter. Perhaps there is some action America can take to prevent a slaughter, some leverage it can exert on an ally’s behalf, some time it can buy them.

But Syria hawks who insist that the United States ought to remain in the country indefinitely to avoid an immoral betrayal of the Kurds are neither acknowledging nor grappling with the full ramifications of their position—nor are they facing up to their part in any betrayal that occurs.

For the foreseeable future, Turkey will be hostile to Syrian Kurds and strong enough to vanquish them militarily if it so chooses. If it is a betrayal for the U.S. to pull out while those conditions hold, that would seem to imply an American presence in the country for years or even decades.

But neither Congress nor the public favors the indefinite occupation of Syria to protect its Kurds from hostility by the Turkish government. Recall that Congress failed to pass an authorization to use military force in Syria even when ISIS was orders of magnitude stronger there than it is today. Would Congress or the public have approved an agreement whereby Kurdish forces helped us fight ISIS and we agreed in return to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Syria as long as Kurds there faced danger? Of course not.

Still, many now say that the United States would be betraying our allies if we leave. It’s reasonable to ask, given the positions of Congress, the president, and the public: Who took on that ostensible obligation on the nation’s behalf? What gave them the right to do so? What other checks are they writing? And is there anything that the public can do to stop them?

Opponents of an indefinite U.S. presence in Syria object in part because the longer U.S. troops stay, the greater the risk that our forces are drawn into an unplanned fight, like the four-hour battle between Russian mercenaries and U.S. commandos, but one that spirals into a larger, potentially catastrophic war between nuclear-armed states. That would be a daunting risk under any circumstances. And the risk is only heightened by Trump’s erratic streak, lack of foreign-policy experience, and penchant for impulsive risk taking that sometimes ends in bankruptcy.

“The world hoped that an Axis of Adults could constrain the juvenile in the Oval Office, but such naive expectations have been dashed repeatedly,” the Syria hawk Max Boot wrote. “Syria offers the latest example of the futility of expecting that lower-level officials can consistently save the world from the commander in chief … Trump does whatever he wants. It could be based on what he had for breakfast or there could be something more sinister going on.” But if Trump is at best an out-of-control juvenile, and plausibly the knowing pawn of America’s enemies, as Boot contends, then isn’t the U.S. safer withdrawing its troops than leaving them stationed in a powder keg, where a misstep by an unfit commander in chief could bring about a global disaster?

Susan Rice, who served as a national-security adviser in Barack Obama’s administration, wrote: “The president couldn’t care less about facts, intelligence, military analysis or the national interest. He refuses to take seriously the views of his advisers, announces decisions on impulse and disregards the consequences of his actions. In abandoning the role of a responsible commander in chief, Mr. Trump today does more to undermine American national security than any foreign adversary.”

Wouldn’t it be better for a guy like that to preside over troops who are stateside with their families rather than deployed in a volatile war zone that he doesn’t understand, even as he shows a new willingness to micromanage?

The stance many foreign-policy hawks are taking is akin to granting that a reckless incompetent has temporarily taken over as on-duty surgeon and insisting that the hospital proceed with its brain operations anyway.

Now, it may be that there’s a persuasive case for staying in Syria a bit longer, until some specific, achievable, near-term goal is accomplished that improves the prospects of America’s Kurdish allies without incurring a greater risk of a world war or doing more damage to the rule of law or the democratic will or unduly endangering the lives of American troops. If so, let’s hear that plan.

Instead, most Syria hawks offer no alternative withdrawal date or evidence that the Kurds will be safer if our forces withdrew in one or five years. And there is good reason to think that part of the reason some hawks want to stay is to thwart Iran’s ambitions for the foreseeable future.

Even those Syria hawks are still right to fear for the Kurds, help make Americans aware of their plight, and urge reflection on U.S. obligations and a withdrawal’s likely effect, if any, on American credibility. And Syria doves are right to fear that the Kurds are being used as a pretext to advance a forever war in the Middle East and to guard against it.

Syria hawks ought not to invoke the Kurds to call for an indefinite U.S. deployment without addressing (among other things) the unfitness of this commander in chief to preside over a volatile occupation, the risks of wider war, the danger to our troops, the lack of an authorization to use military force in Syria, the illegality of staying in Syria to fight with Iran, and the damage done when any faction helps sever the constitutional mechanisms that keep war subject to democratic accountability.

What’s more, Syria hawks ought to reflect on their role in any future betrayal that Kurdish people in Syria suffer at the hands of the United States.

I don’t know whether cooperating to fight ISIS, a common enemy, necessarily conferred an American obligation to protect the Kurds from Turkey. But if representations of that sort were made to Kurdish forces, they were irresponsible promises that could not be reliably kept by whoever made them. Any such promises were made without the backing of Congress or the citizenry in a conflict the U.S. entered without significant debate. It was always easy to see that the American public would eventually sour on having “boots on the ground” in Syria. Only a reckless gambler would’ve wagered that the public would tolerate an indefinite occupation as long as Syrian Kurds faced any danger.

Syria hawks pressed for American boots on the ground anyway. And they got their way in part because they were willing to proceed in spite of a public that was largely ignorant of the intervention—a public likely to stay ignorant longer because foreign allies were minimizing U.S. troop needs and casualties. To urge an intervention despite those factors is to dramatically increase the likelihood of an unpopular deployment, a populist backlash to it, and withdrawal before hawks find it prudent. If anyone told Syrian Kurds that America would always have their backs, that person behaved irresponsibly and probably dishonestly.

Often, the seeds of foreign-policy betrayals are planted at the outset by proponents of interventions who press ahead without adequate buy-in. If hawks are as averse to leaving erstwhile allies in tough positions as they purport to be, they ought to refrain from inserting the United States into future wars of choice without very solid backing from Congress and the public. Those who urge wars of choice absent those marks of legitimacy and relative sustainability all but guarantee that the U.S. will break with some of its battlefield allies, as it has done at least since Vietnam, even when doing so leaves those allies in a very dangerous lurch.

While that is always terrible, overeager interventionists sometimes put the U.S. in a position where the only alternatives are even more terrible. That is plausibly the case in Syria—it is impossible to know for sure.