The Syrian paradox

The Syrian paradox

We need to stay in Syria, and it has very little to do with ISIS.

In many ways, President Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan is admirable. He is attempting to end the “endless” wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. He wants to make a clean break with his predecessors who he believes embroiled the nation in conflicts where the United States had limited control over success or failure. President Trump’s approach is to bring the troops home, while relying primarily on airpower to deter aggression in the region.

If successful, the drawdown would theoretically allow Mr. Trump to refocus his efforts on achieving National Security Strategy priorities — namely, renewing America’s competitive advantages against rivals and competitors. Eliminating a military presence in Syria frees up resources to bolster military capabilities against Russia, China and Iran.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal also presents the president with a paradox.

Withdrawing from Syria will only embolden Russia, China, Syria and Iran, and weaken Mr. Trump’s efforts to renew America’s competitive advantages. Furthermore, relying primarily on airpower in this situation is a risky proposition. Staying in Syria, even with a token force, gives the president great leverage. Here’s why:

Based on public statements, President Trump plans to withdraw U.S. forces to bases in Iraq and then use airpower as the principal instrument to deter ISIS and regional powers from further aggression in the Middle East. Unfortunately, this policy ignores many lessons on the shortcomings of airpower, especially in deterrence.

In this particular situation, airpower is only an effective deterrent if leaders are willing to immediately and forcefully counter a rival’s maneuvers on the ground or in the air. Adversaries must also believe the threat of force — if they view the threat as a bluff, deterrence is ineffective. But would Mr. Trump actually order air forces to strike rivals? If not, airpower lacks the credibility needed to deter rivals.

Consider a few plausible scenarios that will likely unfold as the United States withdraws from Syria:

When Turkey starts advancing against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, will Mr. Trump order the U.S. Air Force to attack Turkish tanks and personnel? When the Russians and Assad regime move to reassert control over areas currently under rebel control, will the U.S. bomb them as well? If the Iranians launch attacks on Israel, Jordan and Iraq from remote areas of Syria, will the Pentagon send aircraft to prevent those moves?

In each scenario, the aggressor can accept a high level of risk because the potential gains of decisive action far outweigh the foreseeable drawbacks. If the U.S. is not willing to counter these possible actions with force, then it will not be able to prevent or deter the actions from occurring.

One relevant example is Britain’s effort in 1920 to “air police” what was then known as Mesopotamia, a campaign documented in David Omissi’s book “British Air Power and Colonial Control.” The Royal Air Force (RAF) used intimidation from the air and propaganda to deter tribal leaders. Unfortunately for the RAF, deterrence through the air did not work. Only the use of force (again from the air) ultimately contained the rebel uprisings.

Today, a better option is to maintain a ground presence in Syria. Even a small force will change the equation. The United States can deter action without necessarily using force. The Syrians, Russians, Turkish or Iranians have to be willing to potentially kill American troops if they decide to maneuver into areas occupied by U.S. forces. Keeping forces on the ground in Syria demonstrates an implied threat without explicitly drawing a red line.

As an example, think of how a battalion of U.S. troops in Crimea circa 2014 would have dramatically altered the strategic calculus of Russia when it contemplated its decisive move there. Troops on the ground in Syria today have the same effect. Retaining ground troops changes the calculus of aggressive forces in the region that are likely energized by the potential opportunities in northern Syria.

The fact is the strategic landscape has changed in Syria. ISIS remains a threat, despite having lost nearly all its territory, but emerging threats — Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Syrians — arguably pose even greater dangers to the United States.

America may suffer a major strategic setback in the Middle East if the future of Syria unfolds unfavorably and without a U.S. presence. Exiting Syria is not the optimal solution, as it likely entails a level of risk that would be hard to swallow. We need a small but highly capable U.S. military force in Syria until the facts on the ground show otherwise.

Timothy Murphy, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a national security affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His views are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force.

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