Quietly, while Americans have been focused on the ongoing drama over repealing the Affordable Care Act and the new revelations about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, President Donald Trump has been busy dramatically expanding the American troop presence inside Syria. And virtually no one in Washington has noticed. Americans have a right to know what Trump is planning and whether this will lead to an Iraq-style occupation of Syria for years to come.
Without any official notification, Trump sent 500 new American troops into Syria, ostensibly to take part in the upcoming assault on the so-called Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa. News reports suggest this deployment may just be the tip of the iceberg, with some saying that the plan is for hundreds more American troops to be added to the fight in the coming weeks. No one actually knows how many troops are inside Syria now, because the administration has largely tried to keep the build-up a secret.
This deployment poses a significant, potentially catastrophic risk for the United States and the future of Syria and the Middle East. Congress cannot be silent on this matter. I have long been against putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria — I opposed the idea during the Obama administration and I oppose it now, because I believe we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the Iraq War if we try to force political stability simply through the barrel of a gun. I would urge my colleagues who have not focused on the question of U.S. troop presence in Syria to, at the very least, demand the administration answer two basic questions before signing off on the money to fund this dangerous escalation.
First, what is our mission and what is our exit strategy?
The public explanation of the military escalation has been to prepare for the assault on Raqqa. Taking Raqqa is a necessary and long-desired objective. The problem lies in making U.S. troops an indispensable part of the invasion force, which likely will require us to stay and become an indispensable part of the occupation force as well. This is what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I see no reason why we wouldn’t face the same trap in Syria. But if this is not the administration’s plan, they should be explicit about this. They should assure Congress and the American public that we are in Syria simply until Raqqa falls, and no longer.
There are other important questions to ask. Recently, Trump sent a small group of Special Forces operators to Manbij to keep the peace between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces fighting for control of this remote section of northern Syria. This suggests our military mission is much broader — and more complicated — than simply helping to retake Raqqa.
Many Syria experts agree that once Raqqa is taken from ISIS, the fighting is just beginning. The contest then begins between the various proxy forces (Saudi, Iranian, Russian, Turkish, Kurdish) over who ultimately controls the city. Will U.S. forces leave at that point, or does Trump’s plan envision that we will stay to mediate future control of large portions of the battle space? This would be a mirror of Iraq, in which thousands of Americans died trying to figure out the post-Saddam settlement of accounts between the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. And it could result in just as much American bloodshed.
Second, do we have a political strategy or just a military strategy?
This past Thursday, I joined other members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee for lunch with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. I was glad that Tillerson was willing to open the doors of the State Department to a bipartisan group of senators, and our discussion was honest and frank. In the meeting, Tillerson showed admirable candor in admitting that the military strategy was far ahead of the diplomatic strategy in Syria.
But this was actually a dramatic understatement. Unless a secret plan exists that Trump is keeping from U.S. senators and his own Secretary of State, there is absolutely no plan for who controls post-ISIS Raqqa, or post-Assad Syria.
The obstacles to a political plan for the future of Raqqa increase by the week. U.S. military leaders want to rely on Kurdish and Arab fighters to retake Raqqa, but hope that the Kurds will then abandon the city after they lose hundreds or thousands of their soldiers in the assault. Even if this fantasy were to become reality, it would come at a price ― the Kurds would expect something in return for their effort. And today, we have no idea how to execute this two-step without having peace undermined by the Turks, who remain violently opposed to giving territory the Kurds. To add complications, the Russian and Iranian-backed forces, sitting just outside Raqqa today, are not going to allow for a U.S.-backed Arab or Arab/Kurdish government to be peacefully installed inside the city. They will want a piece of the action, and we have no credible plan to accommodate them today.
Without a political plan for the future of Raqqa, a military plan is practically useless. Yes, getting ISIS out of Raqqa is a victory in and of itself, but if we set into motion a series of events that simply prolongs the broader conflict, ISIS will easily pick up the pieces and use the ongoing turmoil to regroup and reemerge. We should have learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya that a military victory without a plan for what comes next is really not a victory at all. But unbelievably, we seem on the verge of making this mistake again, because of (understandable) enthusiasm for taking the fight to a vicious enemy.
I want ISIS gone. I want it destroyed. But I want it done the right way. I do not want to Americans to die and billions of dollars to be wasted in a war that makes the same mistakes as the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. And I certainly don’t want the war to start in secret, without Congress even noticing that it’s starting. Congress needs to get in the game and start asking questions - before it’s too late.