The Pentagon this week admitted to having 2,000 troops in Syria, a far cry from the 503 the Obama administration said was in the war-torn country. This American troop presence (or increase) in Syria is the status quo, and it’s indefinite.
Earlier this week, a Pentagon official told Agence France Presse (AFP) that “The U.S. military plans to stay in Syria as long as necessary to ensure the Islamic State group does not return.”
“We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups,” the spokesperson added.
This approach to the Syrian conflict echoes American policy in its forever wars including such hot spots as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen to name a few.
How did we get here? How did the mission in Syria successfully creep from supporting local partners with air strikes to the Pentagon all but saying flat out that they expect to be involved in Syria for the foreseeable future?
Defense hawks in Washington blasted President Barack Obama’s failure to escalate the American role in Syria—most notably his unwillingness to follow through on his 2013 “red line” threats about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The prevailing narrative among Obama’s biggest critics are that this not only reduced U.S. credibility in the region and beyond, it directly contributed to the conflict.
The previous administration favored diplomatic channels over sole military might, but in 2013 when Obama went to Congress for authorization to target the Syrian regime, he was rebuffed. President Trump, on the other hand, didn’t go to Congress in April when he launched 59 tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base.
Rather than deploy American forces tasked with toppling Damascus, the Obama administration decided to enter the conflict in another way: to first recognize the Syrian opposition, and later arming and training anti-Assad groups in their fight against ISIS.
Shortly after, the mission began to creep.
What began with air strikes supporting local forces in their fight against ISIS, Operation Inherent Resolve saw the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by May 2015. In addition to training Iraqi and Syrian forces, U.S. special operation teams were conducting ground raids against the Islamic State. By May 2016, Americans were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Syrian rebels.
Congress never voted on whether or not to allow missile strikes against Assad’s regime, or what role U.S. troops are playing in Syria. Instead of having a public debate that American voters would have an opportunity to provide input into, decisions about the war in Syria are being made by those who are unaccountable to the American people.
Currently, the American involvement in Syria summons a never-ending war.
Who is accountable? Congress seems comfortable to sideline themselves when it comes to their Constitutional duties to debate and declare war.
The Pentagon says they are supporting partners and preventing terrorist groups like ISIS from reemerging. This strategy (if you can call it one) indicates that “winning” is when terrorists don’t show their heads, but there will always be a possible resurgence of ISIS, or another group. Just as there will always be people willing to call themselves partners of the U.S.
This mission creep guarantees that American lives will eventually be lost in Syria. The least Congress can and should do is to be actively engaged and to make the hard decisions war (and the Constitution) requires.