No one knows precisely what happened inside the White House that resulted in President Trump’s sudden about-face on Syria. One day he was planning to extricate American ground troops from Syria; then he wasn’t. Regardless, whoever is urging the president to leave a small contingent of 2,000 lightly armed soldiers and Marines in a remote corner of Syria is doing the president and the nation a grave disservice.
President Ronald Reagan committed 2,400 Marines to Beirut, Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping mission on the advice of his Secretary of State George Schultz. Then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed the mission as open-ended and with no reasonable chance of success, but Reagan followed Schultz’s recommendation.
As Weinberger warned, the small U.S. military presence had no strategic impact on the escalating violence in Beirut. The Marines operated under ludicrous rules of engagement that prohibited them from firing their weapons unless they were taken under direct fire and, even then, only with a weapon similar to the one used against them. In short order, the escalating violence confined the lightly equipped Marine infantrymen to their compound.
At 6:20 a.m. on October 23, 1983 the mission changed. A suicide bomber drove a truck into the Marine compound and detonated a bomb producing a blast equal to 12,000 pounds of dynamite. The blast destroyed the building and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers.
Weinberger was furious and frustrated. When Reagan called him to the White House, Weinberger summed up the position of the Marines to the president in very succinct terms: “They’re in a position of extraordinary danger. They have no mission. They have no capability of carrying out a mission, and they’re terribly vulnerable.”
According to Weinberger, President Reagan said, “Yes, Cap. You were right. I was wrong. Now, we’ve got to get our men out of there.” Despite the usual push back with bluster and bravado—“Americans don’t cut and run,” and “Marines never quit”—from the usual suspects inside the Beltway who’ve never pulled a trigger in battle in their lives, Reagan withdrew the Marines.
As the White House wrestles with the Washington Swamp — a growing group of interventionists inside and outside of the White House—President Trump should consider adopting one of two courses of action in Syria.
- Transform the weak U.S. military presence in Syria into a more capable and survivable force of at least 5,000 U.S. troops including tanks, tracked armored fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and air defense forces.
- Withdraw the force of 2,000-plus light troops currently on the ground in Syria.
Keep in mind, that option one is — at best — a stop-gap measure to protect American lives and nothing more. Short of a massive American military intervention on the scale of Desert Storm, Washington’s actions will make no impact on Syria. Nothing Washington does in Syria will change the reality that Israel is involved in a permanent state-of-undeclared-war with Iran, Iran’s proxies and, increasingly, Islamist Turkey. Moscow comprehends this reality and has acknowledged Israel’s National Security Interests. As a result, Moscow has both warned off Iran and stood aside while Israel has launched more than 200 strikes against Iranian targets in Syria over the last 18 months.
Moscow’s readiness to act decisively against Islamists of all strikes is a good thing, but given Turkey’s defection to the anti-Western/anti-Israeli camp, there will always be a stray Sunni Islamist element present in the region to justify prolonging American military engagement. But staying in the region to chase the residue of ISIS and al Qaeda is pointless. Turkey and the regional Arab states will allow the few surviving Islamist fighters to escape and disperse rather than let them be destroyed.
President Trump should follow his gut instinct and disengage American forces from Syria. President Putin promised to end the Syrian Civil War with the “total annihilation of terrorists in Syria.” President Trump should let him keep his promise.
As President Reagan discovered the hard way in 1983, open-ended peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions are halfway houses that appeal to dithering politicians, but such policies do not ignite passion or commitment among Americans. American voters dislike imprecise and indefinite policies that put American lives at risk casually. According to the latest polls, 62 percent of Americans oppose military intervention in Syria.
After 1991, Washington was stupid and embraced the Neocons’ unipolar moment. As President Trump routinely reminds his supporters, the outcome was a series of strategic disasters for the American people. If the president’s four star generals have not figured it out, at least the American people have concluded that using American military power to breathe new life into the comatose body of the perpetually failed states that litter the Eastern hemisphere is a huge waste of time.
Option two is the right course of action. It’s the option President Trump’s base voted for in 2016.
Extricating American soldiers and Marines from volatile quagmires like Syria (and Afghanistan) will only intensify the president’s popular appeal in the midterms when his base must mobilize and vote to support for the America First agenda in Congress.
Doug Macgregor, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors is a decorated combat veteran, PhD and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory from Naval Institute Press, 2016.