Will Syria Be Trump's Next Foreign Policy Blunder?

A Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighter is pictured at a training camp in Azaz, Syria

Tillerson's address, full of optimism on what could be accomplished, was short on the very details that would take those hopes and turn them into realities.

How, for example, would keeping several thousand U.S. troops in northeast Syria in perpetuity correlate into an acceleration of the Syria talks in Geneva, a diplomatic process that is on tinder hooks after eight rounds of negotiations? Are we really to believe that Assad, who has no incentive whatsoever to negotiate his own resignation or a diminution of his political power, will tremble in his boots and suddenly become a new man once he realizes that U.S. soldiers will remain stationed in his country? Let’s not forget that U.S. special operations forces and advisers have been operating on Syrian soil for years now, a deployment that has had zero impact at all on the regime’s willingness to participate in conflict-ending diplomacy. How would this deployment be any different?

Tillerson intimated in his speech that Washington will redouble its focus on combating Iranian influence in Syria, a goal that many inside and outside the Beltway would unquestionably support. But what does countering Iranian influence mean in practice? If it means authorizing the U.S. military to fight Tehran-backed Shia militias on the ground, this would be the definition of mission creep and a campaign with a dubious legal foundation. Congress has not authorized the use of U.S. military personnel to fight the Syrian government, not to mention Iranian paramilitaries or Iranian operatives. So what legal basis would the Trump administration cite to pursue an Iran-centric strategy in Syria? Tillerson didn’t say, preferring instead to focus on common boilerplate language about the necessity of forestalling a complete Iranian takeover of the Levant. These are terrific lines that Washington hawks will eat up like juicy steaks in one of Trump's hotels, but they won't be enough to persuade the American people—many of whom would rather stay away from the Syria mess entirely—that yet another indefinite American military commitment in the Arab world is in the U.S. national-security interest.

If Tillerson’s address was meant to clarify to the American people and to America’s allies in the region what the Trump administration’s Syria policy consists of, he missed the mark. In the end, we are left with even more questions.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

Image: Reuters

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