President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy has always been peculiar, to put it lightly. In order to make himself appear less hawkish than his opponents in the Republican primary, he falsely claimed to have opposed the invasion of Iraq. But while on the campaign trail, Trump vowed to place 20,000 to 30,000 United States military personnel on the ground to fight the Islamic State (IS), as that would most likely enough boots on the ground in order to illegally seize oil in the hands of the terrorist group. On Feb. 10, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voiced his support for U.S. intervention into Syria, so long as the U.S.. respected Syria’s sovereignty.
This all sounds well and good. More allies in the fight against terrorism is just what we need, right? Not exactly; reality is more complicated.
At this point in time, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the Trump administration plans to do regarding IS. During the election season, Trump stated several times over he did not want to make his plans public; his goal was to be unpredictable. Although by other statements he has made in the past, it seems as though Trump wants to drive U.S. foreign policy closer to the goals of the Assad regime and its ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Assad alliance has maximalist goals: It wants to maintain Assad’s power as the Syrian Civil War continues and crush the already fractured Syrian opposition.
It would be a monumental mistake to send a significant number of troops into Syria. First, neither the Assad regime nor Russia is particularly interested in addressing the threat IS poses. Second, sending troops into Syria with the sole purpose of fighting IS would not be an effective response to slowing down the the group’s spread and its ideology. Lastly, at this point in time, there is significant potential backlash for the U.S. should we intervene on the Assad regime’s behalf.
It’s no secret Russia is intervening in Syria in order to bolster the Assad regime. Its preferred method of pursuing this goal has been rather indiscriminate bombings, often killing civilians. Assad himself has a well-known history of either turning a blind eye or indirectly facilitating groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and IS. During the Iraq War, hundreds of AQ fighters entered Iraq through the Syrian border, a fact of which he was well aware. In addition, we know Assad has released extremists from prison in order to taint the Syrian opposition. It’s clear he is willing to use terrorists to his political advantage, and Russia is willing to live with that.
As I’ve stated before in this column, the rise of IS can be attributed to structural factors within the region. Decades of repression, poor leaders, and sectarian divisions all contribute to the problem we face today in IS. Military pressure alone does very little to alleviate any of these issues. It is a part of the solution, as I have argued before, but the only way to secure a true peace in the region is through significant nation-building efforts. The region needs responsive governments that address the needs of the people. We cannot continue to see our military power as a hammer and every problem as a nail.
Should the U.S. enter the Syrian Civil War in a position directly supporting Assad, there could be hell to pay. If U.S. troops enter into the country to fight IS, the Assad regime is left with even more resources to dedicate to eradicating the opposition. In addition, the line between extremist and opposition is not always clear. As discussed in an earlier column, groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an AQ affiliate, have proven to be very effective at fighting the Assad regime.
We could find ourselves in a position where we cannot fight terrorists without enabling the very dictator facilitating these same terrorist activities. This would put the U.S. in a predicament in the international arena.
No one really knows if we will see the 20,000 to 30,000 ground troops Trump suggested on the campaign trail. What we do know is Syrian and Russian leadership have shown little indication that their main concern is addressing IS. We know a solely militaristic strategy does next to nothing to address the structural factors plaguing the region. And we know we would face international condemnation if the Trump administration found itself directly supporting the Assad regime.