President Trump’s decision Wednesday to pull U.S. troops out of Syria may not be what the Pentagon or its contractors want, but it’s the right decision for taxpayers.
Despite objections from the Pentagon that he didn’t coordinate the pullout with top military officials like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump has final authority over military matters as Commander-in-Chief, according to the U.S. Constitution, so pulling troops out of Syria is certainly within his legal rights.
That said, announcing the pullout on Twitter (as he did with the transgender troop ban) probably wasn’t the best way to do it. Secretary Mattis, for his part, is in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Syria to prevent Iran from gaining ground in the war-torn country.
But despite his questionable methods, there are three reasons why it might not be such a bad idea for Trump to withdraw all troops from Syria.
1. Syria isn’t any safer with American troops present
The argument that American involvement in Syria makes it safer doesn’t hold water. The Fragile States Index (formerly the Failed States Index) currently ranks Syria as the fourth-most unstable country in the world, behind Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. That ranking is relatively unchanged from 2017 and 2016. Given this data, it could be easily argued that American troops have had no demonstrable impact on making Syria a safer country since they’ve been there.
Despite the growing instability, American involvement in Syria has been costing more and more each year. In 2019, the Department of Defense was set to spend more than $15 billion on Syrian operations, according to The Fiscal Times. That amount climbs to $16 billion when counting aid from the U.S. State Department. It seems highly unlikely that more money and more troops will suddenly improve Syrian stability.
While it’s been argued that the absence of U.S. troops could endanger America’s Kurdish partners — who are being persecuted by the Turkish government — Reuters reported in February that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad actually offered the Kurds aid if they gave up their demands for autonomy. While Kurdish forces helped the U.S. fight ISIS forces in Syria, the U.S. shouldn’t be expected to take sides in tribal fighting that’s gone on for centuries. Assad’s olive branch to the Kurds is likely to prevent Turkey from attacking Kurdish fighters if they ally with the Syrian government.
2. Iran isn’t going to suddenly invade Israel because we don’t have troops in Syria
Predictably, pro-war voices in the media like The Washington Post’s editorial board — which notably cheered on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later apologized for silencing anti-war voices a year later — condemned Trump’s decision to abandon military operations in Syria in a Wednesday editorial. Their reasoning was that terrorist group ISIS still had fighters present in the area as well as Iranian proxy forces, and that pulling American troops out would allow them to have greater control of Syria.
This is, of course, despite the presence of Russian troops, which are allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and currently preventing ISIS forces from expanding their presence with coordinated airstrikes. The Global Firepower Index, which uses 55 criteria to gauge a nation’s military strength, ranks Russia’s military as #2 in the world (behind the United States). So if the key motivator for the U.S. is protecting the Syrian people from ISIS, Russia is more than capable of providing that protection.
The Post’s editors also managed to slide in a jab at former President Barack Obama for pulling troops from Iraq, citing it as the reason ISIS was able to gain a foothold in the region, as opposed to his predecessor’s ill-advised war that arguably destabilized the bulk of the Middle East.
The paper even made the argument that the U.S. should actually spend more in Syria, agreeing with National Security Adviser John Bolton that American troops should work to stop Iran from putting proxy forces in Syria’s Golan Heights as a means of threatening Israel (currently ranked as the 16th most powerful military in the world), which is currently occupying what is internationally recognized as Syrian territory.
“U.S. ambitions in Syria have never been backed by adequate resources, and a case could be made that neither Congress nor the American public were prepared to support the mission suggested by Mr. Bolton,” the Post’s editorial board wrote.
But the Post seems to forget that Israel is bolstered by billions of dollars in arms and other military support from the United States ($38 billion in the next decade, to be exact), and has nuclear weapons, while Iran does not. The concept of Mutual Assured Destruction — which has been a constant since the Cold War — is ever-present in the Middle East.
Iran knows that, even as part of a coalition between Assad’s government in Syria as well as the Kremlin, challenging Israel would effectively mean challenging the United States, which would likely start a nuclear war between the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers (Russia and the U.S.) and result in the immediate annihilation of all parties. Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned Hezbollah — an Iranian proxy — that should it attack Israel, the U.S. ally “will act with our full force and might.”
Israel was fine before we had troops in Syria, and they’ll be fine after those troops are gone.
3. The $16 billion earmarked for Syria could be put to better use at home
It seems more likely that the decision for keeping U.S. troops in Syria was more based in economics than in the safety of the Syrian people. By the close of trading on Wednesday evening, stock prices for major publicly traded defense contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman were all down.
While the stock market has been trending downward since October, defense stocks plunged further in the last 24 hours. This is likely due to the news of U.S. involvement in Syria coming to an end, as stock prices for those companies dipped precipitously between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Rather than committing even more resources to what the Cato Institute has called a “lost cause,” the $16 billion committed to Syria could serve a much more productive use at home. That’s more than twice what the U.S. currently spends on the Environmental Protection Agency, and more than five times what America spends on its vastly underfunded national parks. Doubling the EPA’s budget, or quintupling the budget for national parks, would have a far more profound impact on Americans than throwing billions at Syria.
American tax dollars currently spent in Syria could create tens of thousands of new jobs restoring infrastructure at national parks and cleaning up hazardous waste, rather than continuing to put troops in harm’s way in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. While President Trump has largely shown a complete lack of regard for efforts like these, and while his methods are far from what’s considered the norm for a president, his decision to exit Syria isn’t the terrible idea it’s been made out to be.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.