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Leonid Bershidsky

Why Did the U.S. Even Get Involved in Syria?

A memoir by former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter describes an effort that had few supporters in the region.
Solving Syria.

Solving Syria.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

A candid memoir by former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter provides a rare opportunity to better understand President Barack Obama's Syria strategy before it recedes into the historical distance. His many valuable insights raise one big question, however: Why did the U.S. even get involved?

The apparent goal of Carter's detailed reminiscences is to establish his role in the defeat of the Islamic State. The former defense secretary asserts that effective operations against ISIS and a specific battle plan, which Carter claims U.S. and allied forces still follow (the two "red arrows" pointing toward Mosul and Raqqa), only took shape after his appointment in February 2015. But, the self-serving part aside, Carter's 45-page report describes an effort that had few supporters in the region it affected.

Carter blames the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for the emergence of ISIS. But even after the terror militia set up its "state," "the people of the region did not want invasion-sized forces to return," the ex-secretary recalls. Throughout his two-year tenure, Carter had to "ease [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al-]Abadi into accepting more U.S. forces (which was controversial for him at home)." The Iraqi forces, too, initially were reluctant to fight, to the open irritation of Carter and U.S. generals who had to keep prodding the Iraqis into action.