Confusion, changing goals and arrogance led U.S. policy in Syria

The US is withdrawing from most of Syria now, changing its policies once again to “secure the oil,” a blatant disregard for its own stated goals of defeating ISIS and removing Iran.

A Turkish military helicopter flies over as Turkish and U.S. troops return from a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol in northern Syria, as it is pictured from near the Turkish town of Akcakale, Turkey, September 8, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
A Turkish military helicopter flies over as Turkish and U.S. troops return from a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol in northern Syria, as it is pictured from near the Turkish town of Akcakale, Turkey, September 8, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
US Syria policy-makers had a tendency to believe their own words over evidence on the ground, creating a feedback loop of self-deception that eventually led to humiliation and failure in the last few weeks in Syria. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday laid bare a stinging indictment of America’s confusing and changing goals in Syria. US policy was one of setbacks since president Barack Obama’s administration first sought to support Syrian rebel efforts against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Later, an anti-ISIS offensive was so narrowly tailored that it ignored many of the people liberated from ISIS and eventually handed over their areas to Russia, Turkey and the Assad regime, allowing them to be bombed and murdered in the process.
The US is withdrawing from most of Syria now, changing its policies once again to “secure the oil,” a blatant disregard for its own stated goals of defeating ISIS and removing Iran, which has become part of an overall US role that has diminished American prestige and led to questions about whether the US will continue to play a role in the Middle East.
The American president didn’t consult his own key adviser on Syria policy, US special envoy James Jeffrey revealed to the Senate on Tuesday. Furthermore, Jeffrey, who is also the anti-ISIS envoy, doesn’t seem familiar with aspects of the Pentagon’s role or plans in Syria. At each step, it appears that the US government coordinates few of its activities in Syria, largely abandoned the civilians in eastern Syria and paid only lip service to concepts such as “stabilization” or opposing Iran and the Assad regime. It isn’t even clear how seriously the White House takes the anti-ISIS campaign, proclaiming again and again that it has accomplished a mission even though its own officials say there are up to 10,000 ISIS detainees and more than 14,000 active ISIS members operating in Syria and Iraq. America’s top diplomat on Syria even told the Senate that as a diplomat, he simply doesn’t have all the tools needed to deal with the mission at hand.

THE SHOCKING unraveling of US Syria policy gives a window into US policy breakdown that seems more systemic than unique to Syria. Policy-makers at the State Department not speaking to the Pentagon or CIA; no one coordinating at the White House; people waging private campaigns without discussion from superiors or those at their level in other parts of government; little to no interest in the areas that US policy is supposed to affect; lack of basic understanding of the consequences of US actions; and lack of planning, process or monitoring.
For instance, the US anti-ISIS envoy didn’t seem to know how many ISIS detainees had escaped between October 6 and 22 due to US policies that plunged eastern Syria into chaos through a Turkish invasion. The US envoy also didn’t know how many of its Syrian Democratic Forces partners had been killed by Turkey, even though the US had said it was training 100,000 of these forces as recently as June.
US policy blended purposeful ignorance with plausible deniability, pretending not to deal with “sub-state” groups like the SDF, while it was the US that created the SDF. The US even claimed to have helped create a “ceasefire,” only for its own envoy to claim that it was a “pause” in fighting because calling it a “ceasefire” might offend Turkey.
At every turn of the Syrian conflict, the US has been overtaken by events and befuddled about how to react. It had no idea there were 40,000 ISIS families sheltering in Baghouz and never planned how to house them. The US then never bothered to process them or help secure them, enabling them to rebuild ISIS networks. The US helped the SDF defeat ISIS, but then didn’t bother to prosecute or deal with the hundreds of foreign fighters that were detained. It always wanted them to be someone else’s responsibility.
US intelligence never predicted a Turkish invasion, and Jeffrey claimed he was surprised that it happened. This, despite ample evidence of a Turkish military build-up and Turkey showing the entire UN General Assembly a map of its plan. But US policy-makers zombied on, pretending that their own statements about Turkey and their incentives would change things. There was no plan for the day after Turkey’s operation, no aid or processes in place for displaced Syrians and no interest given by US diplomats in those displaced. The US had helped liberate these areas, only to give them away to Russia and Turkey on a silver platter for the same Syrian regime the US pretended to oppose.
In addition, the US also excluded its own SDF partners from discussions in Geneva, making sure Washington had no real say in post-war Syria, deceiving its own partners in the process, before opening the airspace to having them bombed. At the same time, the Jeffrey said the US wants to continue working with the SDF – the same SDF that the US doesn’t know how many have been killed and whose families displaced by fighting have yet to be provided for.
As US policy unraveled in Syria, it did so quickly because many of the elements across the government did not believe in their own policy. Some opposed working with the SDF, which they viewed as a non-state actor linked to the PKK and therefore linked to terrorists. Others never signed onto the Trump administration’s pivot to confront Tehran and leverage the US role in Syria to remove Iran. Instead, they narrowly interpreted this goal as one in which they would support Israel’s freedom of action to strike Iran. The US had no mandate in Syria to fight Iran anyway. While not wanting to confront Iran, not wanting to even work with the SDF were notions held by some, while others quietly never signed on to oppose the Assad regime.
Taken together, the entire US Syria campaign seems to have worked against itself for years. The State Department undermined the Pentagon’s role, and the Pentagon sought to train 100,000 fighters while US policy had no idea what would be done with them after. They were nevertheless asked to go fight in Raqqa and Baghouz and to secure ISIS prisoners, with US policy-makers quietly noting that the US had no obligations to them.
This became clear when Trump walked away and suddenly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper lacked any interest in what became of the SDF. One would think that when a major power like the US helped create an organization like the SDF and train it that it might view itself as a stakeholder, and even consult with its Syrian partners which members of the administration had referred to as “allies.” But in the end, there was no consultation, because there wasn’t even consultation with US officials tasked with dealing with Syria.
All US adversaries – such as Iran, Russia and the Assad regime – had to do was wait. Eventually, the US would outplay itself in Syria. Turkey, moving closer to Russia, also pressured the US to leave. Two weeks after the Trump decision, more than 7,000 refugees have come to Iraq, ISIS cells are operating, Iraq is concerned, US forces don’t know where they will end up and no one seems to know what the next policy step will be in regards to “securing the oil” and trying to get the SDF to continue to work as America’s jailers for ISIS prisoners. While members of Congress are outraged at the lack of answers and setbacks in Syria, there seems to be little circumspection at the higher levels of government, preferring instead to pretend the US still has leverage over Iran, that they can continue to pressure Assad and that ISIS members will remain secured.