Donald Trump Is Wrong to Keep U.S. Troops in Syria With Pointless Mission Creep | Opinion

On April 14, President Donald Trump gave the word for the U.S. to join with the British and French militaries in launching precision missiles against three suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria. Tactically, the mission was a total success: All three targets were utterly annihilated.

Strategically, however, the mission was almost without meaning and contributed nothing to American security or prosperity. The most effective thing the president could do now would be to immediately withdraw the 2,000 American troops in Syria.

Shortly after Trump's inauguration, he said he was going to make good on a campaign promise to destroy the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), and substantially increased the number of U.S. combat troops, trainers, and air controllers in Syria.

Those troops were intended to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their drive to liberate ISIS' self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. With a dramatic increase in the number of airstrikes compared to the Obama era, the U.S.-led airstrikes were decisive in allowing the SDF to fully liberate Raqqa in October.

Syrian children hold up a banner bearing the image of US President Donald J. Trump with the word 'Killer' in Turkish and the Arabic phrase 'Trump is a killer of children' during a demonstration in the rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria on January 19, 2018, in support of a joint rebel and Turkish military operation against Syrian-Kurdish forces in Afrin. NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

At that time, the tactical mission that the president assigned the ground forces was successfully accomplished, and those troops should have redeployed to the U.S. The Kurds, Arabs and Christians that made up the SDF always knew they were going to have to live in Syria after ISIS was defeated, and that they would have to come to some sort of agreement with the Syrian authorities.

When I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016, I spoke with a number of officials from the Kurdish Regional Government who confided that the Kurds had been secretly working with Syrian regime officials to find a mutually agreeable accommodation in Syria after ISIS had been vanquished.

It was never American policy to permanently provide security for the Kurds, and thus after the tactical mission was accomplished, U.S. troops should have come home. Instead, the Trump Administration took no action to bring them home, and military officials went in search of new missions.

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During the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump was an early and frequent critic of open-ended military adventures and promised, "no more nation-building." One might have expected that now-President Trump would have been the first to redeploy the troops. But many in Washington's foreign policy establishment began advocating for a new mission set. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was apparently swayed by their arguments.

On January 17, Tillerson said the troops should stay in Syria, and laid out five objectives that the force was to accomplish. The New York Times summarized Tillerson's goals as "ensuring that the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda never re-emerge; supporting the United Nations-led political process; diminishing Iran's influence; making sure the country is free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and helping refugees to return after years of civil war."

A boy sits on a chair along a damaged street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

A strong argument should have been made that the mission set he articulated had nothing to do with an imminent threat to U.S. security and thus for American troops to have remained on the ground in a sovereign state, the U.S. Congress should have weighed in and either authorized it or ended the mission. There is, however, a much more persuasive argument to have been made against the adoption of those goals: In addition to being unnecessary for American security, they are militarily unachievable.

First, there are only 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, which is a literal drop in the bucket compared to the vast amount of territory and the scores of competing interests, and they control no more than tiny shards of land. They have no influence whatsoever over 99% of the country and thus have zero chance of ensuring Al-Qaeda or ISIS never re-emerge. Second, the U.S. has virtually no engagement in the various peace initiatives, and those troops would therefore have no influence in its outcome.

"Diminishing Iran's influence" is not a military mission and can't be measured. As noted above, since U.S. troops are so few in number and control no meaningful amount of terrain, it is likewise a physical impossibility to "make sure" Syria is free of WMD. Helping refugees return home is the very definition of 'nation-building' and not an appropriate use of combat troops.

I served in Afghanistan at the height of the 2010 surge when there were 140,000 NATO troops and over 300,000 government troops on our side, and we could not accomplish those missions. Given that the Syrian Armed Forces, the Russians, the Iranians, and many Al-Qaeda-backed militia in the country oppose our presence—not to mention the civil population—it is clear those troops cannot accomplish any objective that contributes to American national security.

Every day those U.S. troops remain in Syria, we remain saddled with enormous strategic risk, yet their presence does not even include the possibility of protecting U.S. security or vital national interests. We have much to lose and little to gain. Trump should withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible.

Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis is a retired US Army officer, a foreign policy and defense expert, and Senior Fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​