The Pentagon may recommend the use of regular American ground troops in war-torn Syria, reports CNN. Ultimately, the decision to advance the fight against ISIS will rest with President Donald Trump, who made the total destruction of the Middle Eastern terrorist organization a key pillar of his 2016 presidential campaign. Thus far, U.S. involvement in Syria has been limited to airstrikes and covert special forces operations, consciously avoiding substantial “boots on the ground” that could result in televised American casualties.
Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has captivated the attention of the world for its brutality, complexity, and geopolitical importance in the Global War on Terror. Multiple rebel groups have fought against the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, prompting indiscriminate retaliatory strikes against civilian areas. Some of these rebel groups have been identified as “moderate” and suitable recipients of aid from the West, while others have been criticized as radical Islamists.
In recent years, the civil war in Syria has coalesced into a grim battle between the Russian-backed government forces of President al-Assad and the shadowy, nefarious irregulars of ISIS. The big problem for Washington? Both ISIS and Assad are reviled enemies of America, meaning there’s nobody to root for in this bloody conflict. Attacking ISIS directly may help Assad regain control of his rural territories, and attacking Assad may help ISIS retake ground it has recently lost. Previous U.S. strategies of aiding “moderate” rebels have been criticized as ineffectual and giving dangerous weapons to inexperienced fighters who might quickly lose them to either ISIS or Assad…or defect to either side willingly.
America’s waffling on a Syria strategy has angered both Democrats and Republicans since 2013, when then-president Barack Obama insinuated that we would respond militarily to any use of chemical weapons in Syria. When evidence revealed that al-Assad’s forces had indeed used sarin gas against civilians, Obama failed to use the force he had threatened. Ignoring Assad’s breach of the “redline” prompted calls that the president was soft on defense and terrorism.
Trump called Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his 2016 election rival, weak and lacking in leadership. Now that he is in the Oval Office, will Trump decide that putting “boots on the ground” in Syria is his best way to appear strong? Although the new commander-in-chief is a staunch defense hawk, he should beware the painful lessons learned by George W. Bush: America’s stomach for Middle East intervention is limited.
After the Iraq War, is the American public ready to go another fifteen rounds against radical insurgents in the Middle East? It’s a virtual guarantee that the U.S. military could annihilate any organized ISIS fighters within weeks or less, but “winning the peace” would likely be just as difficult in Syria as it was in Iraq. There are also the added complications of Russia and the al-Assad regime. If Trump sends boots into Syria, can he fight ISIS without engaging Assad and his Russian backers?
With Russian forces already occupying territory in Syria, welcomed by Syria’s official government, the United States would be playing with fire. What should Trump do with the territory that American troops liberate from ISIS? Obviously, he will refuse to hand this land over to Assad, who is still reviled throughout the West as a brutal dictator. But who gets to manage the gains clawed back from terrorists?
The only way to avoid an Iraq-style quagmire is to liberate all of Syria in one fell swoop, deposing both Assad and ISIS at once and replacing them with a unified, moderate Syrian government. This would require tremendous numbers of boots on the ground, risking thousands of U.S. casualties. And what if Russia decides to continue to back Assad, positioning itself as a noble opponent of imperialistic “regime change” by the West?
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in international relations to realize that military intervention in Syria is fraught with peril. At best, the White House faces Iraq 2.0, dealing with a long-term occupation of rescued territory and countless hit-and-run attacks by radicals. At worst, Russia could decide to risk World War III by firing on U.S. troops in defense of its Syrian ally. If China decides to make its own chess moves in the Middle East by publicly backing Syria and Iran, creating a Russo-Chinese alliance to bolster Assad, the United States might be forced into the humiliating position of backing down.
But if the Pentagon recommends “boots on the ground” in Syria and Trump refuses to follow suit, he will look even weaker than Obama did after the infamous redline. Trump, whose public image is largely based on never backing down, may find himself goaded into Syrian intervention by his own pride. Defense hawks in Congress will help lead him down this path, knowing that putting land forces in Syria would result in virtually unlimited military funding for the duration of the conflict.
With “wartime presidents” receiving amplified powers and a better shot at re-election, Trump might view a ground war in Syria, and the subsequent occupation, as the cure for the rocky start to his unorthodox presidency. Right now, the former real estate tycoon is widely mocked and disrespected as president, viewed as an obnoxious buffoon by many. He is seen as inept and childish. But if he is an active commander-in-chief during a bona fide war, Trump might finally win some serious-looking covers from the likes of Time and Newsweek.
Presidents’ approval ratings usually climb during armed conflicts as the nation rallies around them. Could Trump really pass that up if the Pentagon gives him an opening? In mere days, he could achieve the respectability and attention he has always craved.
If Trump’s military adventure in Syria is successful, he could replace his current legacy of bombastic ineptness. If it bogs down into Iraq 2.0, or worse, his reputation would be the worst among all U.S. presidents, combining his current controversies with the kryptonite of military and foreign policy failure. The risks seem to far outweigh the rewards, so Trump should ignore any Pentagon recommendation to send ground troops to Syria.