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The Danger of Mission Creep in Syria

Emma Ashford

On Sunday, a U.S. Navy fighter jet shot down one of Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes
attacking U.S.-allied Syrian forces, drawing the United States
deeper into that conflict. Raising tensions with Russia and
potentially placing American troops in danger, this action was just
another in a long line of tactical decisions which increase U.S.
involvement in Syria without any viable long-term strategy for
resolving or exiting the civil war.

Much of the criticism has focused on President Donald Trump’s
impulsive and pugnacious personality. While Trump has accelerated
this process, he is not wholly to blame for the slippery slope that
the United States is now sliding down in Syria. The Obama
administration resisted large-scale escalation, but their choices
nonetheless contributed directly to today’s haphazard Syria
strategy. The Trump administration needs to decide what it wants to
achieve in Syria now, or the inevitable logic of mission creep may
rob them of the ability to choose.

Obama’s Syrian Wars

A common narrative among hawks in Washington is that Barack
Obama’s failure to escalate in Syria—most notably his
decision not to follow through on his “red line” comments about chemical
weapons—reduced U.S. credibility and worsened the conflict
there. These criticisms are largely unjustified: the red line
comment may have been foolish, but the Russian-brokered chemical
weapons deal succeeded in preventing the further use of chemical
weapons during Obama’s term, and was likely more effective
than air strikes would have been.

The United States has no
viable long-term strategy for resolving or exiting the civil
war.

Obama does deserve some credit for his willingness to avoid
large-scale escalation against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013
and again in response to Russia’s 2015 intervention. Whether
he feared a repeat of the 2011 Libya intervention—where
narrow humanitarian goals quickly and almost seamlessly
transitioned into regime change—or he simply acknowledged the
complexity of the Syrian conflict, the former president repeatedly
resisted pressure to commit U.S. forces against Damascus.

Yet his administration did get involved in other ways, recognizing the Syrian opposition in 2012, and
later supplying arms and training to anti-Assad rebels. Meanwhile,
the campaign against ISIS was characterized by mission creep.
Initially portrayed as air strikes in support of local forces,
Operation Inherent Resolve quickly saw the deployment of troops in
both Iraq and Syria: as early as May 2015, U.S. Special Forces were
engaging in ground raids against ISIS, and by May 2016, they were
fighting alongside Syrian rebels to take the town of
al-Shaddadi.

To support these missions, the United States helped to seize and
expand an airfield near Kobane in northern Syria, staffing it with
civil engineers, intelligence and support personnel. By the time
Obama left office, the United States had 500 Special Forces
personnel on the ground in Syria in addition to support staff. This
gradual escalation went largely unnoticed at the time, with U.S.
forces often seemingly “plugged-in” to fill a temporary
gap in local partner capacity.

Indeed, Obama never appeared to have a good strategy for the
endgame. As long as the fighting in Syria’s civil war stayed
geographically segregated from the campaign against ISIS, both
could proceed without raising difficult questions about territorial
control. Perhaps the biggest problem with the
administration’s Syria policy was its failure to more
aggressively pursue the diplomatic steps that could have begun the
peace process. Rather than admitting America’s limited
strategic interests in the Syrian conflict, ambivalence and gradual
escalation ultimately laid the groundwork for Trump’s more
impulsive escalations.

Trump Hits the Afterburner

If Obama’s involvement in Syria could be characterized as
“creeping escalation,” Trump appears to be sprinting
towards heavier involvement in the conflict. In his first months in
office, the new president authorized substantial new
deployments—almost doubling the number of Special Forces in
Syria—and has begun to deploy conventional forces too,
sending around 400 marines to establish fire bases in northern
Syria.

Trump has also proved far less willing to draw a clear line of
distinction between ISIS and militias associated with the Assad
regime. In April, in response to a chemical-weapons attack, Trump
authorized a tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian air base. Since
that time, U.S. troops have struck Assad-linked militias several
times, bombing convoys and drones that entered into
the exclusion zone near the U.S. base at al-Tanf.

This increase in incidents inside Syria is the inevitable result
of Trump’s choice to speed up the fight against ISIS. Since
weaknesses in local partners can no longer be built-up slowly, U.S.
forces are needed instead to provide required capacity (such as
recently deployed marine artillery units) in key areas. This then
produces new problems for force protection: recent strikes on
regime-allied forces are largely aimed at protecting U.S. and
allied forces. As U.S.-backed and regime-backed forces come into
contact more frequently, these tensions will only grow.

Danger, Will Robinson

Worryingly, unlike the Obama administration, Trump’s approach to
Syria does not appear to be driven by a coherent strategy. Though
far from perfect, Obama’s slow-and-steady approach to the anti-ISIS
campaign, coupled with a concerted international diplomatic effort,
had the potential to yield a substantive rollback of ISIS and at
least a managed ceasefire process in the rest of Syria. But in
rushing the end of the campaign, substituting U.S. forces for local
ones, and effectively ignoring diplomacy, the new administration is
merely increasing the chaos in Syria.

Worse, the Trump administration is reportedly considering using
its involvement in Syria to push back on Iran, a step that will
increase the risks to U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq while producing
no obvious policy benefits. Aside from ISIS, the United States has
never had strong interests in the Syrian conflict; in contrast,
Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are all heavily invested in the
outcome of the conflict.

Indeed, the recent mission creep in Syria effectively refutes
the long-running hawkish position on Syria which argued that
targeted strikes would force other actors to take a more
conciliatory approach to ending the conflict. Trump’s missile
strikes have not stopped the Assad regime’s attacks on civilians,
and militias continue to probe U.S.-associated forces on the
ground—even after the recent strikes. The recent shootdown is
of particular concern, as it highlights that the Trump
administration is willing to retaliate for attacks on local
partners, not just for direct attacks on U.S. forces.

With neither side willing to back down in Syria, the potential
for further escalation is high. Trump is accelerating fast, but
with no clear goal in sight. The White House needs a coherent Syria
strategy soon, before events spiral even further out of its
control.

Emma Ashford
is a research fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the
Cato Institute.