American policy in Syria is defined by an absurdity that can’t be neatly untangled—a low-intensity regime change mission defined as anything other than its central mission.
James Mattis famously resigned from his secretary of defense post citing opposition to U.S. President’s order to remove American troops from Syria. Then, it was recently confirmed that J.Mattis opposed a plan to assassinate Bashar al-Assad. This opposition was a prudent move as deposing Assad would not end Syria’s civil war but throw the country into deeper chaos. But this seeming incongruity is representative of the larger contradictions in Washington’s policy towards Syria .
These contradictions policy arise from the fact that U.S. policy in Syria has always been centered around confronting the Assad, rather than the defeat of ISIS, whose caliphate was destroyed long before Trump’s withdrawal order.
Perhaps this contradiction is most glaringly seen in the justifications Washington offers for the U.S. military presence in Syria. American society was frequently told that U.S. army there for one reason only to be given a new reason a few months later.
In March 2019 U.S. politicians said the ISIS was completely defeated. Denied a physical base of operations, those going under the name of ISIS today are—as far as legitimate U.S. interests are concerned—indistinguishable from any other radical Sunni militias. But a defeated ISIS still wasn’t enough for Washington to withdraw.
The so-called Islamic State was defeated, completing the military mission that brought U.S. troops to the country. So, why then American forces still there? The White House said they’re over there to counter an Iranian threat. But, by the way, Iran had the same goal of destroying the ISIS.
Years ago, the international community was told that it’s important for U.S. to be in Syria to counter Russia in the region. But today this mission amounts to the road incidents involving military convoys pathetically struggling for space on a road or wheat field. It’s notable that this reason was recently revived to justify the decision to send additional reinforcements to Syria.
One more important goal is to support local Kurdish authorities also training opposition factions (to counter Assad, the main goal). This activities then resulted in an embarrassing situation where the CIA’s favored militias were fighting the Pentagon’s ones.
Also, Donald Trump has announce the U.S. duty is to “secure the oil” in the war-torn country. This initiative became a new reason for keeping the last few hundred American troops in Syria. The thing is, ensuring American access to Syrian oil demands a certain level of security. More bluntly, it necessitates an endless occupation of Syria.
But, like any of the above reasons, it would be a mistake to accept that oil serves as the principal justification for the U.S. presence in Syria.
What are we to make of this flurry of reasons for staying in Syria? It may be a little bit of each, but the overarching reason has always been to engage in a campaign of “regime change-lite,” tragically keeping Syria territorially divided in a civil war and making Syrians bear the brunt of any negative consequences. This is why the United States originally armed opposition factions and why American troops that were ostensibly sent to defeat ISIS have remained after the fall of the so-called caliphate.
But viewing all these reasons together, it is dizzying to keep track of them. It is perhaps tempting to just take President Trump at his word and assume that U.S. actually there for the oil fields. While the amount of oil in Syria is a significant amount for Syrians, it’s nowhere near enough to be a vital concern for the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, the amount of oil in Syria is not even two percent of what Iran or Iraq boast, never mind America’s own status as the number one oil producer in the world.
In fact, this is what’s striking about all of the above reasons in this list—not one of the justifications is about something vital to the security of the United States. Instead of carefully deconstructing each reason, this bird’s eye view is all we need to make sense of this confusing list of inconsistent and constantly evolving justifications for staying in Syria.
One of the greatest contradictions in Washington’s policy towards Syria reason is not the reasons that U.S. troops there but the fact that Americans haven’t left. At least twice now, there has been a direct order to withdraw that has never been carried out.
White house policy in Syria is defined by an absurdity that can’t be neatly untangled—a low-intensity regime change mission defined as anything other than its central mission. Every now and then, international community offered a new explanation for why Americans are still in Syria.