Industrial concept with Syria flag at sunset

By John Ubaldi–Abbreviated version published at In Homeland Security News

For the second time in a year, President Trump has conducted military action to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own people, but now that the U.S. attacked Syria what is the long term strategy for moving forward inside Syria?

As the Trump administration recalibrates his Syrian policy as it relates to Assad’s use of chemical weapons he must be mindful of what the famous British leader Winston Churchill once remarked, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

What the U.S. needs to understand is the question posed by General Petraeus when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division in early 2003, “How does this war end?” For the past fifteen years the U.S. is no closer to the answer in Iraq, let alone Syria.

Far too often the U.S. has pursued a strategy of winning militarily instead of focusing on obtaining a strategy of shaping the peace that secures the strategic objectives the U.S. ultimately is trying to establish.  What are our strategic objectives for Syria?

What is U.S. Syrian Strategy?    

The current situation finds President Trump facing the prospect of another chemical weapons use by Assad against his own people, but with the military attack aimed at punishing the Syrian leader, but is the administration focusing on the right strategic objectives in Syria, or is the debate only about how and when to extricate ourselves from Syria.

The situation in Syria has perplexed U.S. national security policy since the civil war began in 2011.  President Obama never provided any strategic strategy for Syria after issuing his famous statement, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said in a written statement. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Since this pronouncement the situation has become even more complicated with Obama’s issuing his famous “redline” pronouncement in 2012, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”  A year later Obama failed to act when Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the president dithered and punted the decision to Congress.

Obama’s Failed Policy Allowed Russian entry into Middle East

This failed decision and others sent a signal to Russian by acquiescing its entry into the Middle East for the first time in forty years, this lack of commitment by the U.S. sent a chilling signal to our allies that America was retrenching from its commitments in the region and allowed Moscow and Iran to further shore up the Assad regime.

President Trump inherited a difficult situation in Syria but he has so far not given any clarity to what U.S. strategy moving forward will be beyond we defeated ISIS.

Prior to the chemical attack in Syria, President Trump has argued for an “immediate-to-soon” departure based on his belief that the U.S. has accomplished its objective of defeating ISIS, and there is no strategic rationale for remaining.  This policy contradicts his military commanders who think otherwise to depart from Syria.

Previous History of U.S. Withdrawal

One also has to remember history and the consequence of the premature U.S withdrawal from Iraq as Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow and Middle Eastern Expert from the Brookings Institute noted that withdrawals leave a void that can be filled by America’s enemies. Iran moved to capitalize on the space left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. That proved to be critical to Iran’s dominance in Syria, as Iraq was a crucial transit point that reinforced the Assad regime with substantial arms and tens of thousands of powerful Iraqi Shiite militias who are now the most dominant force on the ground. It also resulted in the marginalization of Arab Sunnis and Kurds and intensified ethnic and sectarian tensions that arguably enabled the emergence of ISIS in 2014.

Any premature U.S. withdrawal will only further cement Russia deeper into the Middle East, and embolden Iranian hegemony as many countries in the region are too weak to confront Iran without U.S. leadership and security assurances.

Even Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a report, “Syria: When and How Does This War End” punishing Assad in itself will not address the core strategic objectives for either the war in Syria and Iraq or fighting terrorism. It will do nothing to shape a stable peace that serves U.S. strategic interests, the interests of our Arab strategic partners and Israel, or the critical needs of the Syrian people. It is not ever a debate over when the war ends, simply a debate over when the U.S. should leave.

Military Commanders understand the Situation; Does the President?

Military commanders understand the critical strategic parameters for the United States in the region: threats posed by Iran, the continued threats from extremism and terrorism, the security of our Arab partners and to Israel, the continued flow of petroleum exports from the region, as one needs to understand three of the seven economic choke points in the world are located in the Middle East region.  Any disruption will greatly impact the U.S. economy, no matter that we receive scant energy from this region as we once did.

As the U.S. moves forward from the recent military operations against Assad, it must factor in how shape to the peace instead of just focusing on the military aspect, as Petraeus once remarked, “How does the war end?