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Why More Military Action in Syria Is (Still) a Bad Idea

A. Trevor Thrall

Buoyed by President Trump’s airstrike on the Assad regime, Sens.
John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have called on Trump to ramp up military action in
Syria. Nor are they alone in calling for more aggressive action.
From Hillary Clinton and Tom Friedman to a host of former Obama
officials, a large bipartisan swath of the foreign policy community
favors more assertive U.S. action in Syria.

But no matter how frustrated Washington is about the mess in
Syria, and no matter how satisfying it may have been to see the
U.S. finally land a blow against Assad, more military action in
Syria is still a bad idea.

Most fundamentally, the U.S. would be signing up for yet another
long, costly, and dangerous failure in a Muslim-majority nation. We
only need to look at Afghanistan and Iraq to understand how things
would go in Syria. In fact, the situation in Syria is even riskier
and less inviting than Afghanistan or Iraq. The U.S. would be
wading into a mess that involves not just a civil war, not just the
Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but also the active military efforts of
both Russia and Iran. A unilateral U.S. military campaign of any
kind would be costly and run the risk of creating new conflicts
with Russia and Iran.

Even if the U.S. were able to establish full military control
over Syria, the victory would be a hollow one. The U.S. would still
lack a suitable political partner among the Syrian rebel groups,
and would have no way to ensure they were able to govern.

The U.S. has paid dearly
for its mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere; it should not
repeat them in Syria.

The track record from U.S. military victories in Afghanistan and
Iraq is grim. Not only did the U.S. fail to enable stable and
peaceful solutions there, but those invasions and occupations
fueled more conflict and more terrorism, eventually helping give
rise to the Islamic State and spreading trouble throughout the
Middle East.

The case for intervention is weakened further since the U.S. has
no real national security rationale for intervening in the Syrian
civil war. As brutal as Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been, the
security of the U.S. does not depend on whether he or one of his
opponents governs Syria. And regardless of who eventually wins the
civil war, a severely weakened Syria will be in no position to
threaten the U.S.

Nor does the rapidly weakening Islamic State provide sufficient
justification for a major increase in U.S. efforts in Syria. The
U.S. coalition has already made significant advances on Islamic
State’s position in Raqqa. It is only a matter of time before the
last holdouts flee and Raqqa is liberated. At that point, the
conventional battle against ISIS will end and the military will no
longer be the right tool for hunting down individual
terrorists.

As the U.S. has discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq, military
forces eventually wind up becoming targets for terrorists. In
short, increased military intervention cannot produce more security
for the U.S., but it would certainly produce more American
deaths.

Even if the only goal of military intervention were to create
safe zones, it would be a bad idea.

Setting up safe zones will require lots of U.S. troops backed up
by serious airpower. This still raises the risk of escalating
tensions with the Russians, still puts American forces in harm’s
way, and does nothing to resolve the Syrian civil war. The U.S.
would simply end up presiding over a massive and deeply miserable
refugee camp. Then, having taken responsibility for the Syrian
people’s safety, the pressures on the U.S. to do more to end the
civil war would mount.

Safe zones are just a long step down a slippery slope. A better
idea to help the Syrian people would be to find permanent
resettlement solutions for the millions of refugees currently stuck
in Lebanon and Turkey, or struggling to find safe havens in
Europe.

The U.S. has paid dearly for its mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq,
and elsewhere over the past 15 years; it should not repeat them in
Syria. President Barack Obama understood the trap Syria
represented, and to his credit withstood a great deal of criticism
over the years while sticking to his decision not to intervene.
Trump has also said he does not intend to “go into Syria.” Let’s
hope he can withstand all the praise for his recent actions and the
calls for him to do more.

A. Trevor Thrall is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department and associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.