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Commentary: The fight in Syria isn’t just about defeating the Islamic State

Now is no time for the US to withdraw, says former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher R Hill.

Commentary: The fight in Syria isn’t just about defeating the Islamic State

A boy carries his belongings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district, Syria April 2, 2015. (Photo: Reuters/Rami Zayat/File Photo)

DENVER: No Middle East conflict is as complex as the one raging in Syria. The fight involves a government that is antithetical to Western values and a Sunni extremist insurgency that at one point captured the borderlands between Syria and Iraq and fought all the way to the gates of Baghdad. 

The stakes of the war are so high that a varied cast of foreign actors – including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Hezbollah – have all been drawn in.


But there are actually numerous wars being fought in Syria. One struggle, waged against the Islamic State (IS), is well known to the American public. 

Syria's war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since 2011 (Photo: AFP/LOUAI BESHARA)

Less understood is the war to succeed the House of Assad, which has ruled the country as a secular dynasty for almost 50 years. 

A third conflict involves northern Syria’s Kurds, who joined with the United States to fight IS but whose efforts have stoked fear among Turkish leaders that the aspirations of Syria’s Kurdish population could embolden the Kurds in Turkey.

Now add to this many-sided conflict a US president who is uncomfortable with nuance or detail. Donald Trump neither possesses an internationalist mindset nor grasps the message that American power conveys. 

READ: A commentary on Trump's Syria withdrawal - right idea, just wrong time

But while Trump could have been forgiven for arguing that America’s only interest in Syria was the defeat of IS, his recent decision to withdraw all US forces – which he justified with an erroneous declaration of victory – is inexcusable.


Trump’s decision will embolden President Bashar al-Assad, whose rule has been catastrophic for Syria. 

Assad has consistently shown an inability to navigate the complexities of the crisis, including the rapid urbanisation, and subsequent radicalisation, of rural Sunnis displaced by climate change; the incubation of radicalised Sunnis in neighbouring Iraq amid the consolidation of Shia political power in Baghdad; and the growth of Kurdish nationalist sentiment in the region.

But Assad did know whom to call to maintain his grip on power, and the infusion of Russian, Iranian, and regional Shia groups was enough to turn the tide in his favour. That has given his regime a new lease on life in a region not accustomed to giving leaders second chances. 

A man walks past a banner showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Douma, outside Damascus, Syria, September 17, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Marko Djurica/File Photo)

READ: Why can’t America just take out Assad? A commentary

And yet, Assad, like the French Bourbons, seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing during his 18 years in power, and is unlikely to consolidate his victory by introducing the federalised, decentralised structures needed to govern Syria effectively.


US policy in Syria, the policy that Trump campaigned against and has now officially abandoned, has long rested on two pillars: Stability in Iraq and the defeat of IS. 

Under President Barack Obama, and then briefly under Trump, US forces worked with local fighters to bring IS to heel. But, contrary to Trump’s claims, IS is neither defeated nor dead; absent viable institutions and stable political arrangements in Syria, the group is likely to return in some form.

Rather than acting unilaterally, as he apparently did, Trump should have been asking his foreign policy team for clarification on a number of thorny questions. 

What endgame should the US be seeking in Syria? Given Assad’s support from Russia, Iran, and Turkey (whose interests in Syria are hardly trivial), how likely is his departure? 

What political solutions are possible? Is an election feasible or desirable in a context devoid of functioning institutions?

But even posing these simple questions – which admittedly have no easy answers – seemed beyond Trump’s ability and range of experience. Instead of asking anything, Trump chose to declare victory and leave


That decision, and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere, fits a familiar pattern: America’s engagements with the world are too often guided by a premature belief that the objective has been achieved. 

READ: Getting the US out of Middle East purgatory, a commentary

A vehicle drives past a billboard bearing the logo of the Islamic State group in Syria's Deir Ezzor province on Sep 24, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

But the withdrawal from Syria is more notable – and may be more damaging – than most, because it is being ordered by a US president who clearly has no idea what he is doing, and who is incapable of gauging his actions against the lessons of history. 

Facts are not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom, but in Trump’s worldview, there is simply no room for the idea that history can both inform and repeat, or for the connections among many of the world’s most pressing security challenges, whether Syria, Russia, or Iran.

Typically, US foreign policy is viewed as a proxy not only for the president’s toughness, but also for his responsibility to use all resources at his disposal to grapple with matters of state and national security that the public may not see. 

But with Trump, there is none of that. The bluster and blunders that have become visible to all are as thoughtful and strategic as it gets.

Christopher R Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is Chief Adviser to the Chancellor for Global Engagement, Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.


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