President Trump recently suggested that the United States should come out of Syria “very soon.” Leading voices of the foreign policy establishment — in the Pentagon, State Department, Congress, and the media — pushed back, calling for the United States to stay in Syria. Trump quickly acquiesced. Trump was right (yes, a rarity) while the security state was wrong yet again. It’s long past time for the United States to end its destructive military engagement in Syria and across the Middle East, though the security state seems unlikely to let this happen.
The foreign policy establishment opposes the US exit from Syria on the grounds that it would empower Iran and Russia, Syria’s allies, as made clear in January by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in close coordination with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. More generally, the security state typically tries to maintain military bases in those places where the United States has once intervened. That is why there are several hundred US military bases around the world in more than 60 countries.
The security state believes that the United States has the right and the means to determine who governs in the Middle East, and which allies they choose. We should fight in Syria, they believe, because the foreign policy establishment doesn’t like Bashar al-Assad and especially the fact that he keeps Iran and Russia as allies. For this reason, Senator Lindsey Graham declared that leaving Syria “is the single worst decision the president could make.”
This naive approach to foreign policy — overthrow the governments we don’t like and replace them with ones we do like — is the crux of the US foreign policy problem. As a result of this approach, the United States has been enmeshed in nonstop wars of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Trump once talked about quitting Afghanistan, but the United States remains there too since the security state wants it that way.
The US wars of regime change violate international law, cost trillions of dollars, undermine US democracy as the wars are conducted with secrecy and non-stop lies, and almost always fail in their aims. Either they overthrow the government only to be followed by violence and instability (as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) or they fail to overthrow the government, and instead provoke an ongoing bloody war (as in Syria).
It’s time for the US public to understand the Syrian war. The mainstream media have antiseptically described it as a civil war. It has been nothing of the sort. Since its start in 2011, it has been a war pushed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and others, to topple Assad and force Iran and Russia out of Syria.
In fact, the war has failed to accomplish anything other than to destroy Syria, destabilize Europe, and bleed the United States. Around 500,000 are estimated to have died in the war, with 10 million displaced. Assad is still in power, and Iran and Russia are still his allies. America’s efforts, in short, have been a disaster.
The US decision to try to depose Assad was taken at the time of the 2011 Arab Spring. When protests erupted in Syria, and Assad’s regime ruthlessly suppressed the protesters, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton moved to remove Assad. They seem to have believed that a quick nudge would topple the regime, and apparently didn’t think very accurately about the likelihood of success.
Since a direct US-led war on Syria would have been a violation of international law, Obama unleashed the CIA to operate covertly with Saudi Arabia and other countries. The CIA and Saudi Arabia teamed up in an operation code-named Timber Sycamore to back anti-Assad Syrian forces and jihadists from outside Syria. There was, of course, no vote by Congress, no honest leveling with the American people, and no UN vote.
The US-Saudi efforts were effectively countered by Syria, Iran, and Russia. In 2014, some of the jihadists broke away to form ISIS and declare a caliphate, after which the United States began to fight ISIS too. The United States backed Kurdish fighters to combat ISIS, eventually driving an irate anti-Kurdish Turkey into an implicit alliance with Russia.
After six years of war, destruction, and failure in Syria, it’s time for the Syrian bloodletting to end, most importantly by ending US support for anti-Assad forces. Yet the security state remains fixated on the presence of Iran and Russia in Syria.
End the war, and let diplomacy under a UN framework sort out the aftermath of a US-led war that never should have occurred. Crucially, the American people must also be vigilant to stop the foreign policy establishment from revving up yet another war, this time with Iran, which would cause an even greater disaster.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”