The Sources of Mission Creep in Syria

by Paul R. Pillar

The other day we learned that there are four times more U.S. troops in Syria than any earlier official figure had acknowledged. The discrepancy did not get much public attention perhaps because the numbers are small— about 2,000 troops in Syria, with the earlier official figure being 500—compared to some other U.S. military deployments. The incomplete count evidently had omitted personnel on short-term assignments and some others performing sensitive missions. A Pentagon spokesman said that the release of the newer, more complete figure is part of an effort by Secretary of Defense James Mattis to be more transparent.

Less transparent than the new data about the numbers of U.S. troops is the reason any of those troops are staying in Syria. The one uncontested rationale for the deployment in Syria has been to combat the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS), an unconventional nonstate actor that presented conventional sorts of military targets when it established a state-like entity occupying significant territory in Syria and Iraq. The IS mini-state is now all but eliminated. Nonetheless, the U.S. military presence in Syria, although down from its peak strength, shows no sign of ending. Mattis has said that the United States “won’t just walk away” from its efforts in Syria.

The United States is exhibiting mission creep in Syria, with some observers spinning new rationales to replace the mission of armed combat against the IS caliphate. Underlying the mission creep are some familiar patterns of thinking that have been behind other U.S. military expeditions as well. Donald Trump did not originate these patterns, but his administration has slid into them.

Mattis’s comment about not walking away from where the United States already has been involved points to one of those American habits of thought, which is to believe that the United States is best equipped, and should be most responsible, for setting right any troubled country in which the United States has had more than a passing interest. To believe this about Syria goes well beyond the mission of combating IS and gets into pacification and even some elements of nation-building.

Other patterns of thinking about the Syrian case entail amnesia about recent relevant experiences and the lessons that should have been drawn from them but evidently weren’t. American attitudes toward IS, the Syrian regime, and Syria’s Russian and Iranian allies are all involved.

The dominant American perspective toward counterterrorism, and thus toward IS, has been a heavily militarized one inherent in the notion of a “war on terror.” Use of the military instrument has been appropriate insofar as IS, as a mini-state, presented military targets. But IS, which lives on as more of a clandestine movement and ideology, no longer presents many such targets. Non-military counterterrorist instruments are now relatively more important.

Too often forgotten is how much war itself, and specifically the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, was a boon to IS. Also too often forgotten is how much the collateral casualties and damage that are almost unavoidable byproducts of U.S. military action in complicated conflicts tend to boost rather than reduce anti-U.S. extremism, including extremism that takes the form of international terrorism.

One habitual thought about IS has been that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be toppled if there is to be any hope of killing off IS. Max Abrahms and John Glaser catalog the many iterations, voiced over the past two years, of the theme that defeating IS would require defeating Assad. Today’s situation, with the IS caliphate extinguished while Assad remains ensconced in Damascus, demonstrates how erroneous that argument was. Many who propounded the argument are among those now pushing for continuation and expansion of the U.S. military expedition in Syria, with no acknowledgment of the error of their earlier assessment. This demonstrates anew how little accountability there is for faulty policy analysis among the Washington chattering classes.

The dream of felling Assad does not die, even though with the help of his friends he does not appear to be going anywhere in the foreseeable future. Persistence of the dream involves more amnesia, in at least two respects. One is to forget the consequences of earlier U.S. or U.S.-backed efforts at regime change in the region. These include the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which gave birth to the group that we later came to know as IS, and the chaos-fomenting ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

There also seems to be forgetfulness of how long the Assads—including the father Hafez, who put down internal opposition at least as brutally as his son Bashar—have been in power. Forty-seven years, to be exact. Anyone arguing that continuation of Bashar Assad in power is intolerable needs to answer the question “why now?” and to explain how the world and U.S. interests somehow have survived nearly a half-century of the Assads.

As for Bashar Assad’s Russian and Iranian friends, the dominant American perspective is the zero-sum assumption that any presence or influence of either Iran or Russia is ipso facto bad and contrary to U.S. interests. This perspective makes no effort to sort out the respects in which Russian or Iranian actions conflict with U.S. interests, parallel U.S. interests, or are irrelevant to those interests. This absence of effort persists despite the glaring example (not just in Syria, but also in Iraq and beyond) of the fight against IS as a parallel interest. Joined to this habitual perspective is the also habitual use of the misleading vacuum metaphor, according to which not just U.S. involvement but physical and preferably military involvement to fill a space is needed to counter bad-by-definition Iranian or Russian influence in that same space.

These habits of thinking, taken together, close off an escape route from Syria. They imply no end to the U.S. military expedition there. They preclude declaring victory (that is, a military victory against IS) and going home. Vladimir Putin, more conscious than most American pundits are of the hazards of indefinitely being stuck in Syria, is doing that now.

Thus Syria is becoming one more place, like Afghanistan, in which the United States endlessly wages a war. Meanwhile, the Russians will keep reminding everyone that they were there at the invitation of the incumbent government and the United States is not. The Turks will keep getting angry about U.S. tactical cooperation with the Kurds. Sunni extremists will keep exploiting for propaganda and recruitment any damage done by the United States or its local clients. And the Pentagon may or may not tell us how many U.S. troops are actually there.

Photo: Vladimir Putin hugs Bashar al-Assad 

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. It’s more than “habits of thinking.” The US hatred of Russia, which is deep and long, is essential for the continued US command of NATO as a means of controlling Europe (sans Russia), also for US arms sales. Most importantly, he “Russia threat” serves as the main reason for the US to sustain a half-million person strong ground force to counter “Russian aggression.”
    The US hatred of Iran is also long-term and non-ending because Iran refuses to bend to US world sovereignty and also it is a sworn enemy of Israel. Hatred of Iran is why the US has been in Syria, an Iran ally. But that is ending, and US aid to the Kurds will end.
    The Washington Post Editorial Board gets it (Nov 27): “Russia has supplanted the United States as the convening power of the Middle East’s most important conflict. That Mr. Trump would welcome that development is another testament to his curious deference to the Kremlin. It is also, following the disastrous record in Syria of President Barack Obama, an acceleration of the collapse of U.S. global leadership.”
    As if Trump had a choice!

  2. It may come as a stunning surprise to the Administration, but Syria is an independent nation, member in good standing of the UN, etc etc. One may or may not deplore its dictator (I do) but the fact of sovereignty remains. The US, unlike Russia, hasn’t been invited to send troops there – so any present, constitute an invasion force. One can imagine the screams if 2000 troops and associated equipment from (random example) North Korea, invested the Alaskan shore. Ah. This is what’s meant by ‘asymmetry’ in warfare. If I’m big enough, I can do what I damn well please. That explains a lot – about US policy and actions globally.

  3. Iran General Soleimani: “My message to the US military command: when the battle against ISIS will end, no American soldier will be tolerated in Syria. I advise you to leave by your own will or you will be forced to it.”
    Syria’s army declared victory over Islamic State on 9 November, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State on 9 December, President Putin declared victory over Islamic State on 11 December.
    The US CENTCOM spokesman Colonel Thomas has said that US forces would stay in Syria until the conclusion of negotiations on a political solution in Geneva, which looks like the twelfth of never.
    This should be interesting.

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