The thaw in U.S.-Russia relations hit a snag this week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson received a chilly reception in Moscow after President Trump ordered a missile attack on a Syrian military airbase. Trump had campaigned on putting “America First” and avoiding military entanglements abroad—a stance Russia welcomed. But the President’s position, took an abrupt turn after Bashar al-Assad reportedly deployed chemical weapons against defenseless civilians, in what seems to be Trump’s first exposure to how “God’s children” suffer under Assad. Relations with Russia, however, may be the least of Trump’s problems if U.S. involvement in Syria escalates.
Trump’s pivot from isolationism to interventionism while staying the course on his paranoid and miserly approach to immigrants and refugees reveals the fundamental incoherence of his worldview. What had seemed a stunted, transactional form of realpolitik has turned out to be nothing more than improvisation and reflex, and the President’s actions may very well commit the U.S. to a path for which we are ill-equipped in light of how other administration policies damage our credibility and chances for success.
For instance, the U.S. would need the help of local interpreters to succeed in Syria. We relied heavily on local interpreters In Iraq and Afghanistan, where they proved essential to carrying out military operations. These locals possess a deep understanding of local dialects and politics, which newcomers cannot readily learn. The average pay for a locally hired linguist is as low as $15,000 per year—a paltry sum, considering the grave risks to life, limb, and loved ones inherent in collaborating with U.S. forces.
To augment this pittance, the Obama administration leveraged the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which uses U.S. residency to entice support from local nationals with critical-needs linguistic skills. But only about 20 percent of applications are approved, and many applications languish, leaving thousands in limbo—and in grave danger of reprisal.
Worsening the situation is the Trump Administration’s revised order on immigration, which has halted the visa and refugee programs for at least 120 days, sending a message to local linguists that an anemic paycheck is all the compensation they can expect from the U.S. The SIV program’s years-long backlog only reinforces that impression. Therefore, if events in Syria continue to escalate and require additional U.S. troops, there will emerge a disastrous inability to attract local linguists to share their talents that are so necessary for success.
Local informants also stand as human-intelligence assets who are vital to successful military intervention. We depend on these trusted local informants to give credible information on everything from opposition troop movements to ground assessments of civilian casualties. And again, with collaborators facing death and worse, proper incentives are essential.
Informants are typically compensated with U.S. currency in an amount commensurate with the value of their information. But money does not adequately offset the risks involved.
By contrast, visas and legal immigration status provide powerful incentive for local informants wishing to escape dangers at home. But Trump’s well-publicized immigration policies erect near-insurmountable hurdles to Syrian citizens trying to obtain visas, leaving us without a proverbial carrot for would-be informants and linguists who otherwise face extreme risks and negligible rewards for providing information and helping our troops abroad. This, in turn, hinders our military’s ability to procure accurate, real-time intelligence at a speed useful in fast-paced military operations.
Moreover, our forces also need to collaborate with local allied groups in order to have any hope of navigating the complex local and geopolitical landscape that will greet them. But current U.S. immigration policies complicate our ability to garner allied support and cooperation by choking off key incentives for potential collaborators.
For instance, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is among the most effective anti-Assad forces in Syria, but it is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, making aid to anyone affiliated with the PKK illegal. Similar complications arise with organizations such as the Al-Nusra Front, the Muslim Brotherhood, and militias reportedly affiliated with Iran. Despite their affiliations, not all members are true believers or hardliners, and their knowledge of the theater is a valuable asset for U.S. forces, providing “force multiplier” effects during ground operations. But Trump’s immigration policies remove our only bargaining chip to attract combatants out of such organizations in favor of U.S.-backed militias: the promise of visas and legal-resident status in the U.S.
Finally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also made clear the necessity of support from prominent figures within rival local factions. In Syria, most such organizations are riven with splinter sects and offshoots that frustrate military planning and post-operational civil recovery. And so courting local leaders in Syria’s fractured political environment can potentially solve many thorny problems, including curbing Russian interference and resolving the tension between the desire to “de-Baathify” post-conflict institutions and the need to provide stable government services.
But the administration’s dim view of refugees and other immigrants from predominantly Muslim nations makes these tasks all the more daunting by undermining U.S. credibility with Syrian opposition leaders, who will therefore tend to cynically view the U.S. only as a means to oust Assad, not as a credible ally willing to make a long-term investment in a better quality of life for Syrians. Cooperation with Americans under those conditions can serve only to undermine amenable leaders’ credibility with their own constituents.
In essence, current U.S. policy under Trump makes military intervention more difficult and more dangerous. Raising America’s drawbridge to immigrants and refugees does our military no favors, considering how these policies deplete scarce reserves of goodwill and credibility—vital assets with local human assets in war. The President’s incoherent approach to these interrelated issues represents a serious battlefield liability. We are charting a bumpy course, and we can expect to repeat the worst of our missteps from the last decade and a half of war—and some new missteps besides.
Jesse Medlong is a Navy veteran, an international lawyer, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Logan Goldstein is a former Army infantry officer who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and currently works as a private military contractor and consultant. Views expressed are their own.