As discussed here last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. military would maintain a presence in Syria indefinitely. However, the speech—as well as comments made to reporters on his plane after—contain two important contradictions that are worth highlighting. Both contradictions indicate a disconnect between the objectives Tillerson laid out for the U.S. military mission in his speech and the ability to achieve them.
First, as Buzzfeed’s John Hudson points out, in his speech, Tillerson said the long-term military presence was necessary to “neutralize” Iranian influence in Syria. Yet in his later remarks to reporters, Tillerson said American military personnel would not be fighting Iranian or Assad regime forces in Syria except in cases of self-defense. Hudson writes,
When confronted with this contradiction during a rare press availability on his Boeing 757 flying following his speech, Tillerson tried to lower expectations about the likelihood of direct fighting between US forces and Iranian and Syrian government troops and militias.
“We’ve been very clear that we’re not there to in any way engage with the regime, we’re not there to engage with Iran,” said Tillerson, almost shouting so he could be heard over the white noise of his plane flying between California and Andrews Air Force Base.
“We’re there to defeat ISIS. If our forces are attacked by others, then we clearly have the authority and the right to defend ourselves,” he said.
He insisted that his speech was “not inconsistent with what President Trump’s made the priority.”
“The troops are there to ensure we have an enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said.
But Tillerson also declared in his speech that “reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence from Syria” is a top priority.
And as Hudson noted on Twitter, it is also unclear how the United States will neutralize Iranian influence given the disparate force levels each country has in Syria. Estimates suggest Iranian forces of around 125,000, while the United States has 2,000 service members in Syria.
That disparity highlights a second contradiction: the lack of resources to fulfill the ambitious objectives Tillerson laid out in his speech. Kori Schake, a defense analyst with the Hoover Institution who supports a long term U.S. presence in Syria, explained the problem in the Atlantic last week. Schake argues that Tillerson’s goals for Syria are at variance with those of the president he serves and therefore unlikely to receive the resources necessary to achieve them. She writes,
But the resources the administration is willing to commit to this problem are at yawning variance with achieving those ambitious goals. It is unlikely the Trump administration will actually implement the Syria policy outlined by Tillerson Wednesday. Nothing he called for was freshly invented—all of these elements have been floated before. They have never been achieved for the simple reason that greater means have been brought to bear against their success. Rebels did not beat back government control of territory because Russia and Iran cared more about the outcome than America did. Turkey remains unreconciled to U.S. policy and willing to prevent its success. Rebels have not unified under a political leadership suffering Syrians will support, because the rebels are fighting for different Syrian futures. None of those things become more malleable as a result of Tillerson’s speech; none of them will unless the United States is willing to push an awful lot more effort into the mix. And that seems unlikely, given the president’s opposition to all of the means necessary to change that equation.
Strategy is about prioritizing objectives and assigning resources to achieve those ends. Yet, by Tillerson’s admission, the U.S. military posture in Syria will be insufficient to accomplish the goals he articulated. Absent some catastrophe though, the U.S. military mission will likely continue as the American forces there muddle through. So the question becomes, without such a tragedy, what will cause the United States to rethink its approach?