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Few noticed it amid the usual frenzy over something President Donald Trump did, but the United States is now committed to staying in Syria for the long haul—with unforeseen consequences for America’s role in a turbulent and dangerous Middle East.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a Jan. 18 speech that received shockingly little coverage given the stakes involved, laid out what he termed “the way forward for the United States in Syria.” Tillerson outlined five laudable goals that—assuming he speaks for the president—would secure substantial U.S. national security interests: (1) the lasting defeat of ISIS and al Qaeda and any terror threat to the U.S. at home or overseas; (2) the resolution of Syria’s broader conflict through a U.N.-led political process that secures the departure of President Bashar Assad; (3) the diminishment of Iranian influence; (4) the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced peoples; and (5) a Syria free of weapons of mass destruction. Broadly speaking, this mirrors how the Obama administration publicly framed its policy on Syria.
For many former Obama officials, their handling of Syria is a tale of tragedy and frustration—a story of opportunities missed, deals not done, disasters not averted. But could Trump’s approach end up differently? After all, Tillerson made clear that this time, even with ISIS near defeat, the U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria.” In comments that turned a few heads among Middle East watchers, he said “it is vital for the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria… a total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad and continue his brutal treatment against his own people.”
The Trump administration should be praised for bringing clarity to an issue of significant strategic concern. It is encouraging to have America’s policy priorities now clearly laid out in public, and it’s reassuring that the administration has overcome its internal advocates for disengagement. That is the good news. The bad news is that the objectives set out by Tillerson are just that: objectives; and wildly unrealistic ones at that. As with Obama—who declared in 2011 that Assad must go yet consistently rejected calls for a more assertive approach—there is no indication that Trump’s team has developed or begun to implement a strategy to match its grand goals, nor that it plans to deploy the resources necessary to accomplish them.