Trump Quietly Getting US Deeper Into Foreign Entanglements

While we’ve all been focusing our full attention on fighting the repeal of the ACA and the resulting spectacular failure of Trumpcare, the Trump administration has quietly been expanding our military efforts in the Mideast.

Senator Chris Murphy detailed the increased US military presence in Syria and rightly worries that this will once again get us drawn into another quagmire from which it will be difficult to extricate ourselves. In a letter to the Huffington Post, Murphy states, “Without any official notification, Trump sent 500 new American troops into Syria, ostensibly to take part in the upcoming assault on the ISIS 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.”

Raqqa is the last stronghold of ISIS and its defeat there would reduce its control of significant land area to almost nothing. Having American troops be part of that defeat of ISIS and occupy Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the ISIS “caliphate”, would be a public relations win that Trump will certainly exploit, which may well be part of the rationale for the US buildup.

The escalation of US forces in Syria raises two important questions — what is the mission and exit strategy and do we have a political strategy in addition to a military one. Murphy worries the Trump administration has neither. “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 indispensible part of the invasion force, which likely will require us to stay and become an indispensible 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…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 battlespace?”

Regarding the second issue of political strategy, Murphy is even more concerned. In a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Tillerson admitted that military strategy is far ahead of the political strategy when it comes to the aftermath in Raqqa. And the military strategy borders almost on fantasy. Says Murphy, Tillerson’s admission is “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…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…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.” According to Murphy, this is a recipe for disaster and we appeared to have learned nothing from the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and seem prepared to repeat the same mistakes again.

In fact, the situation in Syria combines all of the impossible elements of Iraq and Afghanistan but now includes the presence of the Russians. There is a terrorist organization combined with an insurgency, combined with the normal Shia-Sunni conflict with their associated state proxies, the conflict with the Kurds and Turkey, and the presence of Russia who has always considered Syria its bulwark in the Mideast and which Putin is clearly intent on not losing. Diving into this situation without a clear understanding of the dangers, options, and path forward will simply end in disaster.

Then today, Secretary of Defense Mattis has asked the White House to lift the restrictions that the Obama administration had put in place on military assistance in the civil war in Yemen. Right now, US activities in Yemen are limited to counter-intelligence operations like the botched raid back in early February. Yemen is engaged in a brutal civil war that has once again devolved into a proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers. The Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen are being backed by Iran while the government is backed by Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis are actually fully engaged with Saudi forces continually bombing Houthi areas, with limited effectiveness and large civilian casualties. Apparently all that sophisticated weaponry the US has sold Saudi Arabia over the years has been largely wasted simply because the Saudis are incapable of using it effectively. The strategic US interests in Yemen are the terrorist threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is admittedly serious, and the simple fact that the country is positioned to control access to the Red Sea and therefore the Suez Canal. But once again getting in the middle of a Sunni-Shia proxy war without a clear plan could end up in a quagmire.

Finally, in the wake of the botched Yemen raid and the killing of hundreds of civilians in a bombing raid in Mosul, it is clear that the Obama era policies on trying to restrict collateral damage have been loosened and the US military is becoming much more aggressive. Iraqi commanders have reported that the US has responded much more frequently to their calls for air strikes even when civilian populations may be endangered. According to the Times, “Another Iraqi special forces officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that there had been a noticeable relaxing of the coalition’s rules of engagement since President Trump took office.”

Trump has surrounded himself with generals but has virtually no experienced diplomats in the administration at all. Tillerson has clearly been frozen out of the decision making process in the White House and has been totally ineffectual as Secretary of State. Nikki Haley at the UN has no experience other than governor of South Carolina. Even Dan Coats, the current DNI, only served on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, not on the Foreign Relations committee. The overwhelming advice the President is getting from within his administration comes with a military slant. And with Trump having alienated many of our allies, the US may be acting on its own far more than in the past. That does not mean the Mattis and McMaster are unaware of the dangers of moving forward militarily without a political strategy. The question is whether those concerns ever get through to Trump and get acted on. So far, it seem that the answer is no.

I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at []

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