Like so much else in the last two years, the three-week political Sturm und Drang over American troops’ withdrawal from Syria says less about a fissuring present and more about a fractured past. Donald Trump’s now-modified withdrawal order (four months, not 30 days, unless he changes his mind again) was another sloppy policy move, but one that’s widely misunderstood. Media chatter aside, Trump’s pullout represents not a new direction in foreign affairs but a coarse coda to a decade of institutional error that we need to understand before we can repair.
The central fact behind the withdrawal has been often stated but never explained. There were between 2,000 and 4,000 non-combat-assigned troops in the region, so why yank them out now? And that’s exactly the point. No matter the proximate cause behind Trump’s decision—the conversation with Erdogan, an isolationist sop to his base, an impulse move—keeping or leaving the troops made absolutely no difference in the bigger scheme.
It made no difference for a simple reason. The chips had already fallen between 2009 and 2015, when the Obama administration executed its post-Bush pivot toward Iran and its regional proxy, Syria, and away from America’s allies in the region for 30 years: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. This is the situation Trump inherited, and Trump is not a fixer, he’s a canary in the coal mine. As with “build the wall” and “drain the swamp,” his slogan about Syria—“It’s yours, I’m leaving”—isn’t a pivot, it’s an epitaph. He doesn’t know how to fix our crises, and he doesn’t care. His only purpose is reactionary: to call the crises what they are and point a finger at the people who made them this way.
Which brings us to James Mattis and Brett McGurk, key creators of our Syria predicament, whose resignations over Trump’s decision made them the latest symptoms of a trend wherein makers of problems that created Trump become lauded defenders of the system that opposes him.
McGurk, a career diplomat, was Barack Obama’s appointee as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran and then as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State. As such, he was responsible for carrying out the then-president’s regional strategy—determined by Obama and finessed by Rob Malley, head of the National Security Council’s Middle East Desk—wherein the missions of combating Bashar al-Assad and fighting ISIS were folded into Obama’s main foreign policy ambition, the since-repudiated Iran nuclear agreement of 2015.
Mattis, the head of the United States Central Command under Obama and secretary of defense under Trump, was slightly more hawkish than Obama but still an institutionalist who saw his role in the Trump era as preserving the status quo. That status quo, left over from Obama, was to sweep the surfaces: Avoid a confrontation with Iran, which supported Assad, and make space for Iran’s ally Russia, which also supported Assad, to tamp down the Syrian Civil War, root out the obviously disruptive regional actor—ISIS—and keep the “peace.”
What did this maintenance act mean in practice?
It meant keeping U.S. soldiers in Syria to support vetted Syrian opposition groups that were forbidden to engage any violent element except ISIS: practically, preventing them from focusing on the main reason ISIS exists in Syria at all—Assad and the extremist resistance he engenders. A supplement to this strategy was partnering with the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria that has worked with Assad and, now, will likely want to negotiate an arrangement with the Assad regime which will see the regime return to the areas currently in Kurdish hands.
It also meant refusing to formulate a serious response to Assad’s chemical weapons attack on civilians in April 2018. Surely, with prompting from Mattis, Trump could have been moved to shape a coherent anti-Syria strategy consistent with his urge to marginalize Iran: Hit the Ayatollah by pressing Assad. Instead, despite extensive evidence that a nerve agent was used, Mattis pushed against intervention, and the result was a watered-down show of force that deterred Assad not at all.
Further, it meant tacitly allowing Iran to maintain control in Lebanon by backing the Iranian-influenced, order-oriented, do-nothing Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This was the Mattis-McGurk game plan: Under the pretext of “preserving Lebanon’s stability,” and of turning the LAF into a “partner in the war on ISIS,” they would back the status quo in Beirut—an Iranian-friendly army. By backing this status quo, they gave carte blanche to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group. Armed with advanced weaponry, Hezbollah keeps Lebanon in disorder and menaces Israel, further destabilizing the region.
Finally, on the eastern border with Syria, in Iraq, it meant delivering resources to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) to prosecute the anti-ISIS campaign, meaning that the U.S. anti-ISIS mission in Syria ended up empowering the Iranians in both Lebanon (via the LAF and Hezbollah) and Iraq (via the IRGC). Since Syria is an Iranian ally, and both are Russian clients, this means that Russia’s influence now extends from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.
All of this is what McGurk helped design under Obama and Mattis acquiesced to under Trump, and the results are both tragic and frightening. Five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed, 5 million made refugees within the country and 6 million outside it. Beirut remains a party town but is governed by a Shia militia. A threatened Saudi Arabia wages a costly war in Yemen against Iran’s proxies there that has put 8 million people at risk of starvation. Iran is not only a murderous tyranny on the cusp of nuclear weapons but now also the key regional mover. And Iran’s and Syria’s patron Russia, our avowed enemy, has extended its influence. These are not consequences that 2,000 to 4,000 American troops had any hope of ameliorating—which is to say, they’re not consequences that Trump’s withdrawal decision had any effect on at all. They’re the consequences of 10 years of missteps, which turn on a single origin point: Obama’s post-Bush foreign policy fantasy that we could right all wrongs in a region that turns on fierce interstate competition by pacifying Iran, its most ruthless state competitor.
But none of this is being talked about—and it probably won’t be. The partisan charade will only intensify, as Trump’s clumsy withdrawal gives his enemies an excuse to pounce. Left and center Democrats will forget their own histories of inaction and rush to speak up for the interventionist vagaries they opposed. Saudi Arabia’s overreach, personified by the bumbling if oversignified Khashoggi killing, will continue to be inflamed for political purposes, obscuring the real regional action: the Russian-Iran-Syria solidification. Some hawkish internationalists will attack Trump as “worse than Obama”: a legitimate expression of horror at the president’s humanitarian deafness that still obscures the underlying problem by personalizing it. Others, like Lindsey Graham, will haggle over the withdrawal timing—another distinction without a real difference. And Mattis and McGurk will be treated in the media histories of the moment as “grownups in the room,” figures in the “resistance,” fodder for a thousand patriotic tweets and maybe even a book or two.
We need to push back against all this obscuring. For, as we argue around each other, Iran maneuvers with ever more impunity. ISIS cells plot their regrowth. Assad, to whom we have given a complete victory, persists in his despotic vocation: maybe the first genocidal killer in half a century that America has chosen to forget committed genocide. And Russia, a threat at home and abroad, gains proxies up to the Mediterranean. We won’t fix this situation, one we created, by railing against the finger-pointer in the White House. We’ll only fix it by looking at what we did wrong in the first place and, from that lesson, taking a wholly different approach: treating the ayatollah, Assad, and Putin as our main regional adversaries—a bloc of hostile actors that we need, calmly and firmly, to maneuver against.
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