Trump’s Iran-centric Syria Policy Takes Shape
Samuel Oakford, Journalist based in New York. He is the former United Nations bureau chief for Vice News/The Atlantic
Congress likely won’t take action to rein in the military powers it granted the president after the 9/11 attacks—powers that Trump uses with the broad aim of countering Iran.
This fall, U.S.-led coalition forces escalated attacks in Syria once more, launching more than 1,000 air and artillery strikes, nearly all of them close to the border with Iraq, as Washington seeks to crush the Islamic State’s presence in the country before the end of the year. “They’re either here to fight to death or they’re just going to get killed because they have nowhere to go,” the coalition spokesperson Colonel Sean J. Ryan said of the remaining fighters.
After isis is defeated territorially, however—a goal that now looks to be an inevitability—what happens to the roughly 2,000 American soldiers stationed in Syria is murky. Officials have offered new counter-Iranian justifications for maintaining a military presence there, an argument that critics claim lacks legal standing and that leaves open the possibility of a deployment with no end in sight. And with Democrats having recaptured the House in midterm elections, Donald Trump’s administration may soon be under pressure to better justify that strategy, something that could prove much harder than expected.
There is a case to be made for maintaining at least some U.S. troops in Syria. The promise of extended American military support, for example, has helped cajole Kurdish fighters from inching toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and has encouraged Saudi Arabia to pledge financial support to stabilize areas captured from isis, Hassan Hassan, a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told me. American officials also believe the deployment could strengthen the United States’ hand in negotiations for a political settlement in Syria.
But whatever the political leverage offered by U.S. forces, the war itself is already decided in favor of the Assad regime. While many in the Trump administration want to avoid replicating what they see as the United States’ experience in Iraq, where a perceived early withdrawal ceded space to an extremist insurgency, the White House has offered another reason for keeping troops on the ground: Iran. Tehran has helped provide significant battlefield support to Assad’s forces, which, along with Russian help, has served to turn the tide of the conflict, and the White House’s overriding rationale for staying in Syria has shifted focus to Iran.
National-Security Adviser John Bolton stated in September that American forces would remain in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to Syria, said the same month that Washington was “going to be focusing on the long-range Iranian presence there and ways to get that out while we’re working on the Daesh problem,” referring to an Arabic pejorative for isis. And on the ground, the coalition has already used deadly force in several high-profile incidents with Iranian-backed or pro-regime forces.It’s not a question unique to Syria either. In Yemen, the administration has responded to congressional scrutiny of its support for the Saudi-and-Emirati-led coalition by citing the danger not only of Iranian-linked Houthi rebels, but also of al-Qaeda and isis. But its ongoing attempt to lump justifications together—collapsing walls between what Congress has and hasn’t authorized—was dealt a blow last week, when the Senate voted 63–37 to consider a bill that would end support to the coalition.The legality of any prolonged U.S. deployment rationalized by the threat of Iran is tenuous at best. When President Barack Obama ordered intervention against isis in 2014, he was able to justify it through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the salient portion of which runs just 60 words long and which was signed days after the 9/11 attacks, but which has since become the backstop of U.S. counterterror operations for 17 years.Similarly, George W. Bush and Trump have used it as a basis for activities ranging from drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan to air strikes in Libya and the deployment of U.S. forces across Africa. In Syria, the Obama administration used the AUMF to target isis—a group that didn’t exist on 9/11.Still, no one, said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas whose work often focuses on the AUMF, “could argue with a straight face” that the AUMF applies to Iran, or to the Syrian government. Coalition members like the United Kingdom and France also each have their own domestic legal and political rationale for their involvement in fighting isis in Syria.