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Why are we leaving 2,000 U.S. troops in warring Syria?

Although some may have forgotten it, the U.S. originally intervened in Syria to combat ISIS, in the wake of ISIS's successful exploitation of the Syrian civil war to seize large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

Both Iraq and Iran now have claimed victory against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. So has President Trump. 

Such claims may be premature. Noting last week's annual threat assessment by the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Long War Journal points out that "ISIS is far from finished. While most of the territory once under its rule in Iraq and Syria has been 'liberated,' the group still retains the resources to wage guerrilla warfare indefinitely."

According to the Pentagon, that threat furnishes sufficient justification for keeping roughly 2000 U.S. troops in Syria, where, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, they are likely to remain indefinitely. 

Asked the legal basis for that presence by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Deputy Under Secretary of Defense David Trachtenberg replied that 2001's Authorization for the Use of Military Force covers it, even though ISIS didn't even exist when Congress originally approved the AUMF.

Meanwhile, like Al Qaeda before it, ISIS has metastasized. "Outside of Iraq and Syria," the Journal notes, "ISIS fighters continue to wage insurgencies in several countries," including Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen, and of course Afghanistan. There even are ISIS affiliates at work as far away as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The truth is that our continued military presence in Syria has little or nothing to do with ISIS. Instead, it seeks to sustain rapidly diminishing U.S. influence in the Middle East, in the process reassuring Israel and putting a spoke in the wheels of geopolitical antagonists Russia and Iran, both of which, for different reasons, are deeply invested in Syria and thus in the civil war's outcome.

In the process, however, it risks embroiling U.S. military forces in a bloody intramural struggle over which the U.S. has had and continues to have little or no influence, threatening to drag us even more deeply into a multi-sided contest for regional dominance in which no vital U.S. interest whatever is at stake.

Indeed, in that bloody contest, it has become virtually impossible even to know the players without a program. For its part, Syria's government seeks only to destroy what remains of rebels who, encouraged by the U.S., sought during the brief euphoria of the Arab Spring to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad. 

Supporting that effort for their own reasons are Russia and Iran. Opposing it have been the U.S. and the Saudis, a contest that already has resulted in several dangerous encounters between Russia and the U.S.

Meanwhile, seeking to destroy Kurdish fighters in Syria believed to be allied with home-grown Kurdish separatists, Turkey has invaded northern Syria, risking war with Russia, and prompting the Assad government to extend its support to the Kurds, whom it previously opposed. 

Since we also support the Kurds, who have been among our staunchest allies, that ironically joins the U.S. with Assad's government against nominal NATO ally Turkey, with which the U.S. has been at increasing loggerheads. It also puts the U.S. at odds with ally Israel, which supports Turkey, in part to stymie Iran, whose Lebanese Hezbollah proxies support Assad. 

At the same time, in neighboring Iraq, a Shi'ite government saved from ISIS by the U.S. in no small part through the efforts of Iraq's Kurds now seeks with the help of Israeli adversary Iran to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Nor should we neglect U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, engaged with U.S. help in its own proxy fight with Iran in neighboring Yemen, and thus increasingly suspicious of Shi'ite Iraq and tolerant of traditional enemy Israel.

Is all that clear? If not, we have no one to blame but ourselves, since it was largely our own actions that destabilized the region in the first place, first by tacitly supporting Iraq's war against Iran, then by defending Kuwait and Saudi Arabia against Iraq, then by invading Iraq itself on false pretences, and finally by encouraging unsuccessful and tragically expensive populist revolts in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

America's 242-year-old strategic history includes only a few genuine military disasters, from 1812's abortive invasion of Canada to the Vietnam War, but U.S. involvement in the Middle East since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. has to rank right up there at the top. Rarely have we sacrificed more money, lives, and reputation for worse-judged reasons and less return.

A sensible government would acknowledge that mistake and seek to cut its losses. If we needed proof that extraction from an ill-judged military commitment needn't result in permanent strategic damage, we need look no further than Vietnam, where a U.S. aircraft carrier is scheduled next month to make the first such visit since the end of the Vietnam War.

The truth is, there's no good reason to leave 2000 troops in Syria, and the potential cost is way too steep to pay for a military presence that buys us nothing.

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